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McDonald's to serve McMuffins all day: What's behind the breakfast craze?

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(Read caption) An Egg McMuffin meal is pictured at a McDonald's restaurant in Encinitas, California, in this file photo taken Aug. 13, 2015. McDonald's Corp will begin offering all-day breakfast across the United States on Oct. 6, a widely expected action that the company and investors hope will help reverse slumping sales and traffic at the fast-food chain, the world's biggest.

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Egg McMuffins for dinner? The wait is almost over.

After months of testing in markets across the country, McDonald’s has set a date for the rollout of all-day breakfast at more than 14,300 restaurants nationwide: Oct. 6. The expansion marks the fast food chain’s biggest operational change in years as the company strives to revive slumping sales and a stale brand image, The Wall Street Journal reports.

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More broadly, the move reflects a growing fondness among American consumers for eating breakfast out – a trend that the restaurant industry has rushed to cash in on.

“This is the consumers’ idea. This is what they want us to do,” McDonald’s USA President Mike Andres told the Journal. “That’s why I think this could be the catalyst for our turnaround.”

For the last few years, breakfast has been the brightest spot in the restaurant business. More than 12.5 billion breakfast visits were made to US foodservice outlets in 2013, up 3 percent from the year before, according to consumer research group NPD. Fast food in particular has benefited: Breakfast generated $34.5 billion in sales for the industry last year, and now accounts for 21 percent of the 45 billion customer visits to fast food restaurants, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"More than anything, fast food breakfast satisfies the need for convenience," NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs told the paper. "It's been growing year after year, so there is demand."

But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1600s, breakfast consisted of nothing more than leftovers or cheese and bread, Abigail Carroll, food historian and author of “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal,” told Time magazine. Meat was added to the mix in the 18th and 19th centuries, but for a long time breakfast “looked a lot like ... a snack,” Ms. Carroll said.

So how did Americans go from eating last night’s leftovers to demanding that fast-food joints serve “breakfast food” all day?

The shift began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Industrial Revolution drove people into cities. “People were still eating a farmer’s diet, but they were shifting to a more sedentary lifestyle, which caused indigestion,” Carroll told Smithsonian.com.

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That led dietary reformers such as Sylvester Graham to push forward new ideas – like eating more grains, fruits, and vegetables – for combating the ailment. Soon, breakfast grew to be regarded as “the most important meal of the day” – a phrase likely coined in 1917 in Good Health magazine, then edited by cornflake co-inventor John Harvey Kellogg.

At the same time, the switch to urban, factory-driven lifestyles transformed people’s work schedules, and thus their eating habits, Carroll said. Unable to go home in the middle of the day for the traditional noon “dinner,” for instance, Americans began packing quick, easy lunches – sandwiches, pies, biscuits – saving the evenings for sit-down, family-oriented affairs.

“It’s not the meal that shapes work,” Carroll said, “it’s the work that shapes the meal.”

The same is true for today’s breakfast craze. “As our lifestyles have shifted, so have our morning routines,” Nielsen reports. “The trends that are driving Americans' desires to be plugged in and productive are also driving the way they fuel up at the start of each day.”

And while more health-conscious consumers means that the most successful breakfast campaigns tout tasty, fresh ingredients, convenience is still king, regardless the time of day, according to Nielsen. Hence the rise of a more diverse array of breakfast items at fast-food restaurants: think the eggs Benedict sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts and the waffle taco at Taco Bell.

For McDonald’s, which has traditionally dominated the quick-service breakfast industry, that means Egg McMuffins all day long.

“With the increasingly busy lifestyles we lead today, consumer interest is definitely stemming from the blurring of normal meal periods,” Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association, told food industry publication QSR. “Who doesn’t like some good pancakes, no matter what time of day it is?”