Meals and Meal Times in English-Speaking Countries

Mar 4, 2012Updated 2 months ago

Fish&Chip Routemaster

Once upon a time, a student of mine came up to me after class, looking quite perplexed. She asked an interesting question: ''Why did people in English-speaking countries use to eat dinner around midday?''

That's an excellent question, but the answer to it is not an easy one! Many foreigners find the terminology that accompanies eating in English-speaking countries quite baffling. For example, the word dinner is not always the name of the main evening meal eaten in these countries; sometimes it can also be used for the large meal eaten in the middle of the day. To understand this better, let's travel back in time to the 16th, 18th, and 19th-century England.


In her bestselling book The Rituals of Dinner (1991), Margaret Visser writes that the 16th-century dinner was served at 11 a.m. It was the main meal of the day. People at the bottom of the social ladder also ate dinner around noon. Working the land from dawn to dusk required a midday meal, which was not nearly as lavish as the one had by the upper classes.

Over time, due to socio-economic changes, dinner tended to be eaten later in the day. By the 18th century, many people had their dinner served at about 3 p.m.

Between late 18th and early 19th century, the morning in upper-class households lasted until around 3 p.m. After breakfast starting at 10 a.m., the families ate dinner, anytime between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Did you know?

Capitalism, colonialism, and then the Industrial Revolution were changing the world's economy. Nobles were losing their status as independent powers as kings and central governments took more power for themselves. Fewer and fewer nobles were playing really strong roles in government. The nobility and gentry became a class of leisure and began to spend more time in the cities, where they had parties and entertainment night after night.

The middle class grew at the same time, due to growth in mercantilism, trade, crafts, and manufacturing. This growth also took place in cities. Rising wages led to more purchasing of goods, and the cycle continued. People had more money, and in the cities at least, more goods were available, including candles and lamps. People began staying up later with the better lighting, and many of them didn't have to get up so early in the morning anymore. With these late hours for entertainment and parties, and with more artificial lighting, many people in the cities began going to bed later and rising later in the morning. Mealtimes were pushed back as a result. In London, by the 1730s and 40s, the upper class nobles and gentry were dining at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., and by 1770 their dinner hour in London was 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. What time is Dinner?(2001) by Sherrie McMillan, History Magazine

Middle-class tradesmen, merchants, and various government officials often ate dinner later in the afternoon because they couldn't afford to leave their business unattended in the middle of the day. In fashionable households, dinner was served even later - between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Very late in the evening came supper, which tended to be a snack of cold meats or something hot and light - like soup.

Times have changed significantly since then. Nowadays, dinner is best known as the name of the main evening meal, so let's look into the eating terminology of modern English-speaking countries in more detail.


Breakfast


Breakfast is the first meal of the day. It is eaten in the morning, usually just after a person gets up. The traditional Full English breakfast consists of eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and toast. It is served together with a beverage, such as tea or coffee. Traditionally it is served at breakfast time but is also popular at other times of the day.

Did you know?

The idea of the English breakfast as a unique national dish, stretches back to the 13th century and an English institution called the gentry, who could be considered to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and a group of people who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.

The great country houses of England, owned by members of the gentry and the centre of huge country estates, were important hubs of local society, where breakfast was considered to be an important social event. The breakfast table was an opportunity to display the wealth of the estate and the quality of the meats, vegetables and ingredients produced on the surrounding land and a chance to show off the skills of the cooks who prepared a vast selection of typical English breakfast dishes every morning, for the residents and guests of the house.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, the gentry class was in decline and a wealthy middle class was emerging. The Industrial Revolution and the British Empire at its height were fantastic creators of wealth and the newly rich middle classes saw the idea of the gentry as a social model to aspire towards. Those seeking to advance themselves socially, studied the habits of the gentry, the traditions of their country houses and their fondness for the English breakfast. For the aspiring Victorian middle classes, breakfast became a chance to demonstrate your wealth and social upbringing.

Like all great Victorian traditions, the eating of full English breakfast can be a refined and elegant experience, it is easy to understand why the more affluent middle and upper class Victorians thought of the traditional full English breakfast as the most civilised way to begin their day and regularly indulged in the tradition.

But the full English breakfast was not just a meal for the wealthy, during the Industrial Revolution, the working classes began to eat a full English breakfast on a regular basis, it was sensible to eat a hearty breakfast before starting the day, providing them with the energy they needed, to work a full days worth of grinding manual labour.

The English breakfast tradition spread until its peak in the early 1950's, when roughly half of the British population started their day with a full English breakfast, turning what was once a meal for the nobility into a national breakfast dish. The Full English Breakfast(2014) by The English Breakfast Society


Brunch


Brunch is a meal that is usually eaten in the late morning. It is a combination of breakfast and lunch. The term brunch first appeared in the 19th century among the British upper-classes. Many upper-class houses would give their servants partial or full days off on Sundays. The servants would lay out a buffet spread for their employers in the morning, which combined breakfast and lunch foods. Similarly, people nowadays usually choose to have brunch as a replacement for both breakfast and lunch. Brunch is usually had around 11 a.m. or later.


Dinner and Lunch


In modern English-speaking countries, dinner is now usually the name of the main evening meal. However, in some rural English-speaking regions of the world, the word dinner may still be used for a large meal people have around midday. People who eat dinner in the middle of the day, call their evening meal supper or tea. In contrast, people who call their evening meal dinner, usually refer to the meal eaten in the middle of the day as lunch. Oftentimes, lunch is smaller than dinner.

lemonfair9:08AM on 08/31/09

Poultrygeist was right in citing Webster's dictionary that ''dinner'' is the largest meal. So to the extent it was regional; it was because the largest meal was more likely to be at noon in agricultural country, and then the evening meal was supper. As we've become more urban, more of us who used to have dinner at noon now have it at suppertime, and have lunch at noon.

arashall Aug 9, 2011 01:08 PM

My Louisiana and East Texas grandparents from farming families also had dinner at mid-day and supper later. Sometime while I was growing up in Colorado, I started having lunch and dinner. I would always confuse my grandparents when I invited them to dinner at 6:00. :-)

Martini Me4:03PM on 07/07/09

Dinner always refers to the largest meal of the day. If you have your largest meal mid-day then it would be referred to as dinner and your evening meal would be a supper. However if you have your largest meal in the evening then it would be dinner and your mid-day meal is lunch.

For example, in Britain, during the week when most people are at work, lunch often consists of a quick snack - hot or cold. Dinner happens much later in the day when people have finished their daily work; it might include soup, vegetables, fruits, meat, potatoes, fish, rice, pasta, a dessert, etc. In the United States, lunch is usually a moderately sized meal eaten between midday and 2 p.m. Many farming communities in the English-speaking parts of the world used to have - and perhaps still have - the largest meal of the day around midday. Some probably still refer to it as dinner (not lunch). Their evening meal might be called supper - and is generally lighter than dinner. Some people - depending on where they come from - have a large meal at midday or very early in the afternoon, calling it lunch.

Fish and Chips are still a popular take-away meal in modern Britain. Eaten for lunch, dinner, supper, or as a snack between meals, this classic dish probably has its beginnings in 17th-century Belgian, French, and Jewish culinary tradition. By the beginning of the 20th century, fish and chips became quintessentially British, with ''approximately 25,000 friers in the United Kingdom in 1910.'' Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940 (1994) by John K. Walton.

Did you know?

Oddly enough, the chip may have been invented as a substitute for fish, rather than an accompaniment. When the rivers froze over and nothing could be caught, resourceful housewives began cutting potatoes into fishy shapes and frying them as an alternative. Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or "fried fish warehouse" in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.

Who first had the bright idea to marry fish with chips remains the subject of fierce controversy and we will probably never know for sure. It is safe to say it was somewhere in England but arguments rage over whether it was up north or down south.

At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.

Outlets sprung up across the country, and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog. Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper - a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.The Unlikely Origin of Fish and Chips (2009) by James Alexander, BBC News.

Charlotte, York

Memories of mum sending us to the chippy on a Saturday for "one of each and a bag of chips with scraps". Why do they taste better outdoors? I love the regional variations. Mushy peas, fritters, black peas, saveloy. Nobody does it better than the north though.

Philip Nichols, London

I don't know where it originated, but I live in London and it is practically impossible to get decent fish and chips. Even the supposed 'quality' end of the market is poor in my estimation. And they leave the skin on in the south, it's just wrong.

Peter, Slough

This article brings back memories of my times in the Royal Navy. When in the UK, some of the lads would go ashore and nine times out of 10 they would come rolling back to the mess deck with either fish & chips or pie & chips. One could be sound asleep - it was not the noise that woke you, but the aroma and the cry of "give us a chip". There is nothing else like the taste and aroma of fish and chips out of newspaper, which helps the aroma linger on.


Luncheon or Lunch


Luncheon is a very formal and rather old-fashioned word for lunch. Lunch was first introduced into society as a ladies' meal in the 18th century.

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By 1800 the dinner hour had been moved to 6 or 7 p.m. For early risers this meant a very long wait until dinner. Even those who arose at 10 a.m. or noon had a wait of anywhere from six to nine hours. Ladies, tired of the wait, had established luncheon as a regular meal, not an occasional one, by about 1810. It was a light meal, of dainty sandwiches and cakes, held at noon or one or even later, but always between breakfast and dinner. What time is Dinner? (2001)by Sherrie McMillan, History Magazine

The Industrial Revolution played an important role in establishing this meal as a modern English midday meal. During the Revolution, many people moved to large towns and cities to work in factories; therefore, it became difficult for workers to return home for dinner at midday. Thus, dinner moved to the evening, when the family could have a large meal together at a more leisurely pace. The rushed midday meal came to be called lunch.

Many people in the middle and lower class began to eat dinner in the evening as the nobles and gentry did. But they did so due to the demands of the workplace, not because they were up all night at parties. And many of them retained the traditional dinner hour of noon or one on Sundays, when they were home from work. Many people still do today. What time is Dinner? (2001) by Sherrie McMillan, History Magazine


Tea


Tea can be a light meal eaten in the afternoon. It usually consists of sandwiches and cakes, with tea to drink. This meaning of tea is used mainly in Britain by middle and upper-class people. It is usually served between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Did you know?

Tea with biscuits and pastries had been popular since the 1700s as a refreshment to serve visitors. Now ladies began taking tea and snacks of light sandwiches and cakes around four or five in the afternoon, regardless of whether or not they had visitors. At first they had this snack in relative privacy, in their boudoir or private sitting room. But by the 1840s they had established afternoon tea as a regular meal in drawing rooms and parlors all over Britain. The middle and lower classes in Britain were quick to adopt this new meal when they could. But it never caught on in the US. What time is Dinner? (2001) by Sherrie McMillan, History Magazine

Tea can also be a meal eaten in the early evening. This meaning of tea is often used by working-class people in Britain.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004)

If you call it tea, and eat it around 6:30pm, you are very likely to be working class. The higher classes use ‘tea’ to mean ‘afternoon tea’ (a working class word), which consists of tea, cake, scones (pronounced with a short ‘o’), and dainty sandwiches.

If you call it "tea", and eat it at around half past six, you are almost certainly working class or of working class origin. (If you have a tendency to personalize the meal, calling it "my tea", "our/us tea" and "your tea" - as in "I must be going home for my tea", "what's for us tea, love?" or "Come back to mine for your tea" - you are probably northern working class.)

Charlotte Morgan 16 April 2012

At lovefood HQ, two of us call our evening meal ‘tea’, and the other two call it ‘dinner’. Of the two who call it ‘tea’, one comes from Manchester and the other has a very influential mother from Staffordshire. So it’s a north-ish/south divide thing, yes?

HeartofGlass 8:28PM on 07/02/09

In England, I was first thrown when people referred to having their 'tea' as dinner--not what we think of as 'tea/high tea' but what most call dinner or supper.

In Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, the word tea is often used to refer to the early evening meal.

Supper


Centuries ago, supper was the lighter meal following dinner because back in those times, dinner was the main midday meal. Nowadays, the word supper can be used for a large or light evening meal. The use of the word depends on geographical or social class differences. Some English-speaking people call their evening meal dinner while some prefer to call it supper. Very often, supper is a light informal meal eaten just before people go to bed at night.

Harters Aug 12, 2011 03:12 PM

Certainly in the UK, I'd say there is a geographical/social class difference with dinner/supper. Dinner is my main evening meal and supper might be a light snack just before going to bed. Supper as a main evening meal appears to be more southern England and "upper class.''

woodleyparkhound Aug 10, 2011 08:41 AM

In southern Ohio where I grew up, the evening meal was always referred to as "supper" as in, "Hey Mom! What's for supper?" I have since thought of it as a regional term that diners in more educated circles refer to as "dinner". In my understanding, a light meal eaten late at night can correctly be called supper, but I never use the word in that way. I've come to dislike the word "supper," and I don't use it at all.

ocarol9:53AM on 07/02/09

Texas folk used to call the midday meal dinner and the evening meal supper. More modern or urban Texans now do lunch and dinner, but I will still always call Sunday nights meal "supper". My grandmothers used to cook big "dinners" and the leftovers served as supper too.

kappamaki3:58AM on 07/07/09

I'm Australian. I consider "supper" to be either a light dinner, or it could also be a small snack (not something you would think of as desert) some time after dinner.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004)

If you normally only use the term "dinner" for rather more formal evening meals, and call your informal, family evening meal "supper" (pronounced "suppah"), you are probably upper-middle or upper class. The timing of these meals tends to be more flexible, but a family "supper" is generally eaten at around half past seven, while a "dinner" would usually be later, from half past eight onwards.

In many parts of the United States and Canada, the terms dinner and supper are considered to be synonyms. In some regions, the term dinner refers to a very formal evening meal, while the term supper refers to an informal evening meal.

If you'd like to know more about the evolution of food and meal times in Britain, check out the excellent BBC4 TV series on the history of the British breakfast, lunch and dinnerwith Clarissa Dickson Wright.

The Use of Articles and Prepositions with Meals

Words referring to meals can be used with or without articles. For example:

  • I have breakfast every day. (no adjective in front of the word breakfast)
  • I have a big breakfast every day. (an adjective in front of the word breakfast)

As seen above, an article is used when you are describing a meal with a suitable adjective.

When you want to say that someone eats a meal or wants to eat a meal, then you should use the verb have. An article after the verb have is not necessary when you're not describing a meal in more detail. For example:

  • I would love to have breakfast / lunch / dinner / supper right now. correct
  • I would love to have a breakfast / lunch / dinner / supper right now. incorrect
  • I would love to have a wonderful breakfast/lunch/dinner/supper right now. correct

When you want to say that someone prepares a meal, you can use the verb make. For example:

  • I'll go and make breakfast / lunch / dinner / supper.

REMEMBER: Don't say that someone ''makes a breakfast / lunch /dinner / supper.'' incorrect

However, if you would like to describe the meal you're going to make, you can add an article: ''I'll make a delicious (adjective) breakfast.'' correct

When you want to talk about what a meal consists of, then you can use the preposition for. For example:

  • I had fried eggs for breakfast.


Sources

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America/Andrew F. Smith editor [Oxford University Press:New York] 2004, Volume 2 (p. 66)

Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser [Penguin Books:New York] 1991 (p. 158-9)

What time is Dinner? (2001) by Sherrie McMillan, History Magazine

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004)

The Unlikely Origin of Fish and Chips (2009) by James Alexander, BBC News.

The Full English Breakfast (2014) by The English Breakfast Society

Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940 (1994) by John K. Walton.