The lines have been blurring between restaurant dayparts and dining occasions. As a growing population of snackers changes their eating-out behavior, consumers are doing a lot more mix-and-match dining. These days, an appetizer can be a snack, and a trio of small plates can make up a meal.

Foodservice consumers are looking for chances to customize the menu and often use small bites to supplement or replace a meal. All of these factors are pointing to growth opportunities for starters, small plates and sides. Their flexibility and downsized portions appeal more broadly to consumers and can fit a wider variety of dining occasions.

“Appetizers, small plates and accompaniments are becoming more of a draw,” saus Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of Technomic, Inc. “In fact, our data shows that consumer purchases of appetizers are steadily getting closer to pre-recession levels. That’s good news for operators looking to promote add-on sales of starters and other extras. Highlighting the shareable, fun factor of these foods—as well as their versatility—helps them function as menu differentiators.”

To help foodservice executives understand consumers’ related behaviors, preferences and attitudes, Technomic has published its new Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report. Interesting findings include:

Most of the appetizers consumers order (59%) are eaten as starters. Meanwhile, consumers indicate that small plates are equally likely to be eaten as starters (34%) or as meals (33%), demonstrating the flexibility of these items.

Forty-six percent of consumers say they are less likely to order an entrée if it comes with a side they do not enjoy, and 36% often choose entrées based on the accompanying sides.

Two-fifths of consumers report that unique or ethnic flavors play a strong role in their appetizer (38%) and small-plate (39%) purchasing decisions. When it comes to sides, consumers are more reserved: 45% of consumers prefer a familiar side item over an unfamiliar one.