Is that your dinner? Snacks are replacing full meals for many

The Wichita Eagle, Mike Hutmacher / AP

How are Las Vegans snacking? How should they be snacking? And will there forever be a disconnect between the two?

In 2016, Americans “continued to prioritize the portability and convenience of snacking in place of traditional sit-down meals,” according to research firm Euromonitor International. In addition to snacking more frequently, consumers “are also looking for healthier indulgences within savory snacks,” the group said. “Products that can offer high-protein content, for instance, have grown in popularity as consumers look for satiety for meal replacement. This has helped drive growth in nuts, seeds and trail mixes, and other savory snacks — primarily meat snacks — which both grew current value sales by 3 percent in 2016 and jumped by 32 percent and 34 percent, respectively, since 2011.”

Lower-calorie snacks have been a focus, allowing consumers a salty indulgence with a minimal calorie count. “Ready-to-eat popcorn, for instance, has exploded … and helped drive value sales in popcorn up by 7 percent in 2016,” Euromonitor added.

Bad Reputation

“Snacks get a bad reputation,” said Stephanie Wragg, assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at the College of Medicine at Roseman University of Health Sciences. “But if you reframe them in the context of having many small meals a day, as opposed to two or three large meals, snacks make sense.”

That might require letting go of the notion that “snack” only applies to something processed that comes in a bag. Whether you consider it a snack or a meal, Wragg added, it should be healthy — “that can mean simply decreasing salt, fat and empty carbs, and (exercising) portion control.”

MGM Resorts, which serves about 21,000 meals a day in its 12 employee dining rooms (EDRs) across the Strip, has a formal “healthy initiative” in place. In developing dining options for staffers, the chefs are working toward excluding white flour, refined carbs and frying, and minimizing red meat and sugar.

One program introduced in 2012 has become “tremendously popular,” said an MGM spokeswoman. It’s called Jim’s Plate, in reference to MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren. The plate offers rotating options designed to be healthful and low-calorie (around 700 or less), and to make substantial foods snackable, whether it’s chili-glazed salmon with rice pilaf or grilled turkey burgers with faro and cucumber salad.

“I firmly believe we have a duty to offer the best possible work environment for our employees, and that includes our EDRs,” Murren said.

Healthy guiding principles have the potential to affect employee behavior, but some are always going to choose a bag of chips. At Zappos, the snack strategy is to provide plentiful freebies and “popular items based on employee tastes, likes and feedback. The most popular item in the break rooms is Honey Nut Cheerios (by leaps and bounds). In our snack machines, Ruffles chips is the most popular item, followed by jalapeño chips, York mints, Twix and Reese’s,” said Brad Tomm, director of sustainability and campus operations, adding that offerings change based on data analysis. “When we review the monthly volumes, we find that salty items outsell the sugary items. Healthy options such as Cliff Bars, trail mix, nuts and Kind bars are offered but are less popular.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no taste for healthy items at Zappos. In fact, Tomm said that “power foods” such as bananas, oranges and apples are stocked once a day and always sell out. In the context of responding to food trends in pursuit of employee happiness, he noted that the company’s dining landscape has changed a lot since it moved its headquarters in 2013 from Henderson to downtown Las Vegas. “Quality and selection have improved exponentially. At the old Henderson campus, we only had three vending machines for snacks; now we have 20. In Henderson, we had a 1,500-square-foot dining room; now we have an 8,000-square-foot dining room. Zappos made huge investments in our F&B experience.”

Snack City?

It stands to reason that the prevailing lifestyle of Las Vegas — hanging out at bars or playing video poker for hours, or working odd shifts — might contribute to the snack culture.

George McCabe, director of public relations for B&P Advertising Media Public Relations in Las Vegas, has a theory. While he has no evidence to support it, McCabe suspects that Las Vegans “might buy and eat more snack foods than our counterparts in other places. We’re more mobile than most and we have more than our share of convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and other places where you can find snacks 24 hours a day.”

Given the unconventional hours of some shift work in gaming, hospitality and other local industries, College of Southern Nevada biology professor Denise Signorelli thinks: “Definitely, the shift work impairs healthy eating.

“I have students with families who work the night shift. They come home as their kids need breakfast and the easiest thing is to hand them a container of chocolate milk and a granola bar while shuffling them in the car to school. The parents themselves are all confused: ‘Can I have dinner at 6 a.m. or should I have breakfast?’ And if they work at the casinos, many of them get free food — bad-news food like meats in sauces, cheese-laden pasta, fried vegetables and baked sugar-added canned fruits in desserts. Plus, tons of sweets and refined flour-baked goods with no limits.”

Like McCabe, Signorelli pointed to easy access to convenience stores, fast-food outlets and vending machines, and the fact that finding a grocery store with a nice spread of fresh produce may require driving to the suburbs. But Dr. Trina Wiggins, of Pediatrician-Medicine on the Move for Southwest Medical Associates, said she doesn’t believe the culture contributes to increased consumption of snack food.

“There are other nongaming cities whose residents consume more snacks than people in Las Vegas. According to a article in January 2012, Greenville, N.C.; San Antonio, Texas; Springfield, Mass.; and Salinas, Calif., were among the top spenders on snack food.”

Wiggins favors grapes, edamame and organic chia and quinoa chips.

“Grapes are refreshing, easy to handle and healthy,” she said. “Edamame is easy to handle, and it’s a great source of fiber. Chia and quinoa chips are low in sodium, non-GMO and tasty.”

For Signorelli, healthy go-tos include bananas, apples, roasted nuts and frozen Brussels sprouts. “I eat them like bonbons,” she said.

While locals don’t necessarily mirror the eating habits of tourists who come to indulge, Signorelli pointed out that “even the ‘foodie’ culture here is full of fat and sugar-laden foods and bacon. These things are fine in moderation, but hey, it’s Vegas, so the portions are huge and the selections are endless.

“We have celebrity cupcakes, doughnuts, chocolates and frozen confections,” Signorelli said. “It certainly is hard to resist.”