Grazing: for many people, dinner time is whenever the mood strikes

IF your kitchen is constantly invaded by people coming and going with strange combinations of foods at odd times of day and night, it probably means you have a ''grazer'' in the house.

A new trend in eating habits, grazing bears little resemblance to the old-fashioned three-course meal or three-meals-a-day routine.

Grazing means eating when the mood strikes, often in small amounts - poking through freezer, refrigerator, and cupboards and pulling together different foods that may not traditionally go together.

It may be yogurt with salad for breakfast, fruit with grains or cereal at lunch, or pita-pocket bread filled with bean sprouts for between.

But grazing is by no means limited to the home. Street food is excellent fodder for grazers, who might start with multiflavored popcorn for breakfast and pick up such snacks as croissants, potato skins, ice cream, or nachos during the day and evening.

Street vendors encourage the grazing trend with their hot bagels and pretzels with mustard, and fresh fruit chunks in tall cups that look so cool and refreshing on a hot summer day.

Salad bars and buffets are good grazing areas, too, and appetizers are popular if they can be shared or used as the main course.

Places like Boston's Quincy Market and San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square are a grazer's delight, with booth after booth of eat-as-you-stroll foods such as kabobs, spinach pie, pizza, crab or lobster rolls, pate, and huge chocolate cookies.

Grazers also pick up assorted ready-to-eat food at convenience stores, takeout shops, and even supermarkets.

When it comes to cooking and eating at home, there seems to be no consensus as to whether six or seven small meals a day are nutritionally better than three of the old kind, but the trend toward more eating sessions is definitely gaining favor.

Here are some other trends to expect as more people adopt grazing habits:

* ''Convenience foods without guilt'' might be the slogan when it comes to cooking at home. Cooking from scratch will be appreciated but de-emphasized for busy people. Food industry surveys indicate that grazers will be using more appliances and eating more quickly prepared foods than ever before.

''This is the group that will dominate the trends and set the pace for those who follow,'' says Mary McBride, marketing research and planning director for Uncle Ben's Inc.

* Along with convenience, grazers will want quality and variety - and they'll be willing to pay more for them.

* Lack of cooking experience will apply to both sexes, including the new outward-looking woman who's been career-oriented all her adult life and really can't cook any better than her male counter-part.

* With all family members on busy schedules that may not coincide at mealtimes, no one person will be expected to provide all the meals.

* As inexperienced cooks starting to use food, grazers will be fearless in teaming up foods in unusual ways because they aren't restricted by traditional food combinations. They will make spontaneous combinations using whatever is on hand and come up with good meals, not junk food.

* There will be a shift in ideas about what makes a meal special. Formerly a ''special'' meal meant treating oneself to the best steak or lobster and cooking it exactly ''right.'' Grazers will be more adventurous, treating themselves with new taste and texture combinations, not the same old menus.

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