Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Have we always eaten them?

Neon sign for breakfast, lunch and dinner

British people - and many others across the world - have been brought up on the idea of three square meals a day as a normal eating pattern, but it wasn't always that way.

People are repeatedly told the hallowed family dinner around a table is in decline and the UK is not the only country experiencing such change.

The case for breakfast, missed by many with deleterious effects, is that it makes us more alert, helps keep us trim and improves children's work and behaviour at school.

But when people worry that breaking with the traditional three meals a day is harmful, are they right about the traditional part? Have people always eaten in that pattern?


Fry-up breakfast

Breakfast as we know it didn't exist for large parts of history. The Romans didn't really eat it, usually consuming only one meal a day around noon, says food historian Caroline Yeldham. In fact, breakfast was actively frowned upon.

"The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day," she says. "They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time."

A brief history of brunch

Eggs Benedict
  • Brunch is a portmanteau of "breakfast" and "lunch(eon)"
  • It is thought the meal has its roots in British 19th Century hunt breakfasts - lavish multi-course meals
  • In 1895, Guy Beringer wrote a column for Hunter's Weekly arguing the case for inventing a whole new meal for late Sunday mornings, mainly for Saturday night partygoers
  • The following year he was mentioned in an issue of Punch, which announced "to be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch'"
  • While the concept is British, it's the Americans who really embraced it
  • It reportedly became popular in 1930s Chicago when film stars and the like stopped off in the city between trains for a late morning meal
  • Sunday brunch became even more popular in the US after World War II, when there was a decline in American churchgoers
  • This trend continued as the more formal 1950s gave way to the '60s
  • Back then brunch menus included clam cocktails and calf's liver with hash browns, nowadays it's more likely to be Eggs Benedict

Source: The Smithsonian

In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate, says food historian Ivan Day. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It's thought the word breakfast entered the English language during this time and literally meant "break the night's fast".

Religious ritual also gave us the full English breakfast. On Collop Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, people had to use up meat before the start of Lent. Much of that meat was pork and bacon as pigs were kept by many people. The meat was often eaten with eggs, which also had to be used up, and the precursor of the full English breakfast was born.

But at the time it probably wasn't eaten in the morning.

In about the 17th Century it is believed that all social classes started eating breakfast, according to chef Clarissa Dickson Wright. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich.

This morning meal reached new levels of decadence in aristocratic circles in the 19th Century, with the fashion for hunting parties that lasted days, even weeks. Up to 24 dishes would be served for breakfast.

The Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th Century regularised working hours, with labourers needing an early meal to sustain them at work. All classes started to eat a meal before going to work, even the bosses.

At the turn of the 20th Century, breakfast was revolutionised once again by American John Harvey Kellogg. He accidentally left some boiled maize out and it went stale. He passed it through some rollers and baked it, creating the world's first cornflake. He sparked a multi-billion pound industry.

By the 1920s and 1930s the government was promoting breakfast as the most important meal of the day, but then World War II made the usual breakfast fare hard to get. But as Britain emerged from the post-war years into the economically liberated 1950s, things like American toasters, sliced bread, instant coffee and pre-sugared cereals invaded the home. Breakfast as we now know it.


Lunch menu board

The terminology around eating in the UK is still confusing. For some "lunch" is "dinner" and vice versa. From the Roman times to the Middle Ages everyone ate in the middle of the day, but it was called dinner and was the main meal of the day. Lunch as we know it didn't exist - not even the word.

During the Middle Ages daylight shaped mealtimes, says Day. With no electricity, people got up earlier to make use of daylight. Workers had often toiled in the fields from daybreak, so by midday they were hungry.

"The whole day was structured differently than it is today," says Day. "People got up much earlier and went to bed much earlier."

By midday workers had often worked for up to six hours. They would take a quick break and eat what was known as a "beever" or "noonshine", usually bread and cheese. As artificial light developed, dinner started to shift later in the day for the wealthier, as a result a light meal during the day was needed.

The origins of the word "lunch" are mysterious and complicated, says Day. "Lunch was a very rare word up until the 19th Century," he says.

For the love of sandwiches

Man eating a sandwich
  • Britons buy about three billion ready-made sandwiches a year
  • We are each thought to eat to about 200 sandwiches a year
  • A sandwich is the lunch option for 75% of us, says market research analyst Mintel
  • The retail sandwich market is worth £6bn
  • Britain's favourite sandwich is chicken salad

Source: British Sandwich Association

One theory is that it's derived from the word "nuncheon", an old Anglo-Saxon word which meant a quick snack between meals that you can hold in your hands. It was used around the late 17th Century, says Yeldham. Others theorise that it comes from the word "nuch" which was used around in the 16th and 17th Century and means a big piece of bread.

But it's the French custom of "souper" in the 17th Century that helped shaped what most of us eat for lunch today. It became fashionable among the British aristocracy to copy the French and eat a light meal in the evening. It was a more private meal while they gamed and womanised, says Day.

It's the Earl of Sandwich's famous late-night snack from the 1750s that has come to dominate the modern lunchtime menu. One evening he ordered his valet to bring him cold meats between some bread. He could eat the snack with just one hand and wouldn't get grease on anything.

Whether he was wrapped up in an all-night card game or working at his desk is not clear, both have been suggested. But whatever he was doing, the sandwich was born.

At the time lunch, however, was still known "as an accidental happening between meals", says food historian Monica Askay.

Again, it was the Industrial Revolution that helped shape lunch as we know it today. Middle and lower class eating patterns were defined by working hours. Many were working long hours in factories and to sustain them a noon-time meal was essential.

Pies were sold on stalls outside factories. People also started to rely on mass-produced food as there was no room in towns and cities for gardens to keep a pig pen or grow their own food. Many didn't even have a kitchen.

"Britain was the first country in the world to feed people with industrialised food," says Day.

The ritual of taking lunch became ingrained in the daily routine. In the 19th Century chop houses opened in cities and office workers were given one hour for lunch. But as war broke out in 1939 and rationing took hold, the lunch was forced to evolve. Work-based canteens became the most economical way to feed the masses. It was this model that was adopted by schools after the war.

The 1950s brought a post-War world of cafes and luncheon vouchers. The Chorleywood Process, a new way of producing bread, also meant the basic loaf could be produced more cheaply and quickly than ever. The takeaway sandwich quickly began to fill the niche as a fast, cheap lunch choice.

Today the average time taken to eat lunch - usually in front of the computer - is roughly 15 minutes, according to researchers at the University of Westminster. The original meaning of lunch or "nuncheon" as a small, quick snack between proper meals is just as apt now as it ever was.


Family dinner 1938

Dinner was the one meal the Romans did eat, even if it was at a different time of day.

In the UK the heyday of dinner was in the Middle Ages. It was known as "cena", Latin for dinner. The aristocracy ate formal, outrageously lavish dinners around noon. Despite their reputation for being unruly affairs, they were actually very sophisticated, with strict table manners.

Food for Richard II's 1387 dinner

  • Ingredients included 14 salted oxen
  • 84lb salted venison
  • 12 boar, including heads
  • 120 sheep heads
  • 400 rabbits
  • 50 swans
  • 150 castrated roosters
  • 1,200 pigeons
  • 210 geese
  • 11,000 eggs
  • 12 gallons of cream

Source: Recipewise

They were an ostentatious display of wealth and power, with cooks working in the kitchen from dawn to get things ready, says Yeldham. With no electricity cooking dinner in the evening was not an option. Peasants ate dinner around midday too, although it was a much more modest affair.

As artificial lighting spread, dinner started to be eaten later and later in the day. It was in the 17th Century that the working lunch started, where men with aspirations would network.

The middle and lower classes eating patterns were also defined by their working hours. By the late 18th Century most people were eating three meals a day in towns and cities, says Day.

By the early 19th Century dinner for most people had been pushed into the evenings, after work when they returned home for a full meal. Many people, however, retained the traditional "dinner hour" on a Sunday.

The hallowed family dinner we are so familiar with became accessible to all in the glorious consumer spending spree of the 1950s. New white goods arrived from America and the dream of the wife at home baking became a reality. Then the TV arrived.

TV cook Fanny Cradock brought the 1970s Cordon Bleu dinner to life. Many middle-class women were bored at home and found self-expression by competing with each other over who could hold the best dinner party.

The death knell for the family dinner supposedly sounded in 1986, when the first microwave meal came on to the market. But while a formal family dinner may be eaten by fewer people nowadays, the dinner party certainly isn't over - fuelled by the phenomenal sales of recipe books by celebrity chefs.

The last episode of Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner with Clarissa Dickson Wright is broadcast on BBC Four on Wednesday, 21 November at 21:00 GMT. You can watch episodes via iPlayer.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    #264 Porridge is up to 20% protein (in the individual grains)

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    What intern cobbled this together? Even one hundred years ago in this country it was, for the vast majority, as if anyone had the choice what and when to eat. Earlier it was just a case of survival particularly in winter, porridge or pottage is what the vast majority of Europeans had to survive on, boiled grain of some sort, rarely any protein. Cock not Rooster, loncha the origin of lunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    And this story is important because???????

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    245.Gabriel Oaks
    14 Minutes ago
    Always start the day with a bowl of porridge.
    Excellent suggestion for keeping you regular
    I go exactly at 7 every morning...
    Only problem... I don't get up till 8

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    The secret of a good diet is not to eat between meals --- just have 8 meals a day

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    256. ronmacdee. Hollywood strikes again. Seamen were not served 'gruel' with weevil infested biscuit as often seen. All the hot food was boiled in muslin bags in a copper. Each member of a mess took his turn to be cook for the day and food was brought to the table in a 'fanny' to be dished out. The ships cook, did not cook, he tended the fire only, each mess did their own cooking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.


    Calories in vs Calories out determines net weight gain/loss, one can be obese while eating healthily or underweight eating 'junk' food. Try writing down how many calories you eat on a day to day basis and lower the amount gradually till you lose 1 or 2 lb/s a week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Des Play
    3 Hours ago

    It's Breakfast, Dinner and Tea for us northerners. I was fed at school by a Dinner Lady not a Lunch Lady. "

    Too right, but not a mention of Tea, not that the BBC is parochial of course.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Me? Oh yes,bacon,sausage,black pudding,egg and tomatoes every day...and I smoke..and drink..and Im not dead. The old ways are NOT bad for you. What is bad for you is believing that in chosing to abstain from all of lifes pleasures you will somehow live longer lives,its not true,it just ensures that you die of boredom after a very long period of having strangers wipe your bottom for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Unless I missed it, the origins of 'square meal' is not here explained. The King's regulations in the 18th century Navy entitled every serving seaman to 3 square meals per day, square because gruel was served in square platters capable of being stacked and conveyed easily from the galley to the gun decks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    #250 Actually the Wiki page doesn't mention the 'square meal' claim at all. The Royal Navy may have been the first to use that actual phrase but the square plate known as a Trencher was been around for forever. As far as I know the Royal Navy started with Henry VIII... Trenchers are mentioned by the Romans.

    PS I'm ex-army. The Brit army created 100's of these sayings too

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Talking food with my sister in law earlier, we both said that we found that eating breakfast only made us feel hungrier for the rest of the day - and so we eat twice as much.But if we 'skip' breakfast we don't feel hungry until mid to late afternoon, when we don't binge but eat a good homecooked meal.
    BTW stories my (grand)parents told prove to me that the housewife cook was NOT a '50s invention!

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    You should only eat when you're hungry. I won't eat breakfast if I'm not hungry. And sometimes I don't feel hungry until 1 or 2pm. Then I'm happy to eat until I'm full. The ritual of eating 3 meals a day was probably meant to fatten up the malnourished. We are not malnourished and some of us eat all day long!

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    I think different people have different level of hunger and body metabolism.
    Which is mainly due to family and childhood food habits, genetic and environmental factors.
    Some ppl look big even though they hardly eat anything.
    While some appear average while they eat plenty all the day.
    I believe every Human being is genetically unique and in a way their body burn calories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Although I used to say Breakfast, Dinner and Tea (when I lived up North), I now realise how daft this sounds...Why not call it Breakfast, Dinner and Coffee!?! Tea (with biscuits) is what you have inbetween lunch and dinner!....

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    240. Peter_Sym. I think you are suffering from 'Wikiytiss'(the portrayer of myth) My understanding of a medieval trencher is that it was a round loaf. The square plate used in the navy is well documented, with a raised edge known as the 'fiddle'. Food was not supposed to be given away to shipmates but if someone did you a favour you could give him some on the side, or on the fiddle, hence the term

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    3 Minutes ago
    241. rajagra
    Can I take this opportunity to thank Michael Mosley for his Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer.

    PS. Can I take this opportunity to thank Johnny Rotten for getting me back onto butter instead of that other muck.

    Can I take this opportunity to thank Ronald
    for getting me on my 5(burgers) a day

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Depends where in the world you live - cold northern climate, long dark winter, you need to eat differently from someone in a hot southern climate, where most things close down for 2 or 3 hours in the hot midday sun. Wherever you are, making a pig of yourself at any time of day is generally not a good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    I am considered to be obese yes! ....which makes me laugh because what I eat is considered healthy.

    I am not telling porkies either....tonight I will have fish salad for my evening meal, with ONE small yoghurt!!!!

    I work in an office and don't really do that much exercise.....I fly model gliders and have to walk up a big hill to do it. A sedentary life means I put weight on easily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    you forgot to mention the influence of continuous advertising to sell/buy junk food which includes breakfast cereal, burgers, chicken and no one was allowed to eat and walk down the street in the 50's 60's 70's and the TV did not dominate the home and famly.


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