The lines between restaurant dayparts and dining occasions are officially blurred. As a growing population of snackers change their eating-out behavior, consumers are doing a lot more mix-and-match dining, according to “Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report,” published by Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

These days, an appetizer can be a snack, and a trio of small plates can make up a meal. For example, 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,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president. “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.”

Other 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.