eating patterns

Convenience and culture combine to create the modern lunch daypart

By Robert Carter

Is it lunch time yet? A common question echoed across the globe by billions of hungry people as the middle of their day nears. And for most of these hungry people, lunch represents the second meal of the day. In Canada, by the time lunch hour comes around, most of us will have already been awake for an average of 4.2 hours.

Most Canadians enjoy a routine of three meals a day: Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Starting the day with breakfast (considered the most important meal of the day) is popular with Canadians as 90 per cent of us eat a meal upon waking. From there, it will be another four to six hours until our next substantial meal.

Unmistakably known as lunch, the meal after breakfast is viewed by many Canadians as the best meal of the day. But lunch as we know it today is a relativity new meal occasion for our modern civilization. As society evolved and lifestyles changed as a result of the advancement of technology, our eating patterns evolved.

Shaped by daylight

Prior to the introduction of widespread electricity, daylight shaped our mealtimes. With no electricity, people got up earlier to make use of daylight, toiling in the fields and finishing the day many hours later. So by midday they were hungry, often having worked for up to six hours. They would take a quick break and eat a small simple meal, usually bread and cheese. As artificial light was developed and helped modify our working hours, dinner started to shift later in the day, and as a result, a more substantial meal during the day was needed.

The lunch meal occasion really began to take the modern form we are familiar with today with the onset of industrialization in the 19th century. During this period, workers began to work long shifts at the factory, severely disrupting the age-old eating habits of rural life. The midday meal grew in popularity as workers were given an hour off midday to eat a meal and thus gain strength for the afternoon shift. Stalls and later chophouses began to appear near the factories, providing ready-to-eat food for the working classes. The meal occasions we know today as lunch, was firmly established as part of the daily routine and remains so to this date.

A sandwich society

In 2017, 70 per cent of Canadians will eat lunch. As popular as lunch is, 30 per cent of us will skip a daily midday meal, making lunch the number one skip meal. For the majority of Canadians who eat lunch, one in three will eat a homemade lunch either at home or they will pack a lunch to bring with them to work to be eaten in the middle of their work day. Of those lunches, 75 per cent will be some sort of sandwich, which is our favorite lunch food. Other than a sandwich, many of us may be lunching on our second most favorite homemade lunch item: Leftovers.

But not all of us find a homemade lunch appealing. Many of us view homemade lunches as not very convenient or not very appetizing. For those seeking a lunch other than made at home, our lunch meal will come from a restaurant. And the selection of restaurants to choose from seems limitless; ranging from the Tim Hortons that populate the east coast to the swanky, high-end casual dining restaurants such as The Cactus Club on the West coast.

eating patterns

Business is booming

Today we can choose from over 72,000 restaurants across Canada that will serve us a ready-to-eat, fully cooked lunch. The convenience of lunch is a booming business. In 2017, Canadians will collectively spend $17 billion on the convenience of a prepared, ready-to-eat delicious lunch meal from a restaurant.

Lunch is the most important meal time for many restaurants. Of all the visits we make to restaurant in a year, 40 per cent of those will be for lunch. While breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day, the majority of our breakfast is consumed at home and only 27 per cent of our visits are to a restaurant for breakfast. Dinner is the second most popular reason we visits a restaurant with the share of our usage for supper at 33 per cent.

Convenience has always influenced our decision to eat lunch at a restaurant, right from the early days of the development of the chophouse during the Industrial Revolution. Today, quick service restaurants (QSR) are the primary choice of Canadians when going out for lunch. It is this segment, which includes the McDonalds, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s, AW and Starbucks of the world (to name a few), that captures the majority of our lunch visits as 68 per cent of all lunch meals on a typical day in Canada are to a QSR. Enjoying a lunch experience from a full service restaurant (FSR) is viewed as a more occasional lunchtime destination. Lunchtime at this segment of restaurants (think Boston Pizza, Swiss Chalet, the independent restaurant down the road as an example) happens much less frequently and is only responsible for 12 per cent of all restaurant meal occasions. The primary barrier to eating lunch at a FSR is mainly time and cost. According to NPD’s report titled “The Habitual Lunch Consumer,” time is of the essence at lunch when compared to dinner when deciding to go out to a restaurant.

Convenience is key

Convenience is the key factor influencing our lunch decisions, just as it has been for many years. Today, convenience continues to reshape our lunch experience and it is technology that is having the greatest impact on making lunch even more convenient. With the proliferation of mobile apps that allow us to order our lunch and have it ready for pick up or have lunch delivered to our office or home, the lunch meal has never been so convenient. Apps such as Ritual and Hangry as well as apps from operators such as Starbucks allow us to order our lunch and have it ready for pick up. Delivery apps such as Just Eat and UberEats provide access to thousands of restaurant lunch meals, including from restaurants such as McDonalds, delivered directly to us. And the convenience of using these apps to order lunch is growing in popularity. In 2016, Canadians spent over $270 million on lunch meals using an app. This number is expected to continue to grow by an estimated 15 per cent or more in 2017.

Today, lunch ordered from restaurants is an important meal time for Canadians and spending on lunch at restaurants is a $17-billion industry. As more Canadians find the convenience of technology helps with their increasingly busy days, lunch will be a daypart that will increase in importance and restaurants that provide convenient lunch meal solutions will benefit from the continued growth of a very popular daypart occasion.

About the author:

Robert Carter is a consumer behaviour industry expert and speaker with a passion for tracking trends and consumer activity. As Executive Director of Foodservice with The NPD Group, Robert provides key insights and strategy on consumer behaviour, guiding Canadian, U.S. and global manufacturers, suppliers and operator business decisions. For more information, visit

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