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?

Breakfast

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

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.

Dinner

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.

 

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 385.

    What about Second Breakfast, Elevenses, Afternoon Tea . . .

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 384.

    Breakfast, dinner and tea. Lunch is for wimps and soft southerners.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 383.

    @ yeahbutnobutyeah
    When did I go to University?
    Also, I specifically said DON'T shop in supermarkets, I can get 5 mixed pepers for £1 at my local Turkish veg store in London. they are £1:65 at Tesco for only 3. Case closed

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 382.

    When I was a child in the 50's, breakfast was at - 8am, elevenses at 11am, lunch at 12:30, afternoon tea for adults at 4pm and tea for childrean at 5pm, dinner for adults at 7pm whilst children had their supper. In the last years before I retired I was often at work at 7:30am and lucky to grab a sandwich and a drink before I returned home by 6:30. The pace of life dictates our eating habits.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 381.

    For a couple million years people were foragers maybe like chimpanzees and gorillas. Found food? Eat it. Full? Stop looking, or else gather some for later. The article only covers the last eye blink of human history. The other approach is the physiologists who examine what we need to live. We exercise regularly and need to eat before and during, and after long bicycle rides.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 380.

    Why can I not rate one of the comments in the editor's picks?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 379.

    I play golf off of a tea.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 378.

    What people ate and when surely depended upon their working day and income. The lives of the ordinary were rarely documented but medieaval peasants working all day in the fields were known to eat an early morning and evening meal.I bet they had dockey ( bit to eat late morning) and fourses if they were working late, just like we did in the Fens when I was younger. Even if it was just a crust.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 377.

    I like to take a nap after lunch

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 376.

    It's interesting to read what people here on HYS write about tea. There's the drink taken at any time of day, then there are the meals called tea, high tea and afternoon tea. My favourite tea is high tea because I always enjoy the hot savoury, maybe cheese on toast or sardines on toast. All these teas must make it very difficult for non-Brits visiting the UK!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 375.

    Breakfast
    Elevenses
    Lunch
    Tea
    Supper
    That'll do me.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 374.

    40 years ago the routine was breakfast before going to school or work, dinner eaten at home at about 12.30pm with the whole family present (mum, dad, kids), then tea between 5 and 6pm with the whole family. In those days people didn't travel long distances to get to work so it was common for families to eat together. My friends ate similarly. My posh friends also had supper before bedtime.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 373.

    "283.
    britstudent
    Editors' Pick
    5 Hours ago
    I'm a student, so can't afford much, so when I go to Tesco and see that a healthyish meal costs £3-£5 and a microwave meal costs 75p, it's hard to eat healthy."

    Visit your local markets & fresh food shops and it'll be a quarter of the price if that, with the money you save buy a few recipe books.
    Maybe the Editor who Picked this should do so too?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 372.

    just one meal a day, A full english fry up

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 371.

    Anyone heard of a dingoes breakfast? ....
    ... A p!zz and a good look round...
    ...
    ... Reminds me of the coyote in the road runner cartoons.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 370.

    @355. redand2000
    Honestly, you are not helping any cause when you spout such nonsense. I was at university and regularly fed myself on £25
    ---
    I did too 25 years ago! I probably spent about £10-£15/week and ate well. Times have changed. The cost of basic ingredients has increased hugely. It really IS cheaper now to buy a frozen meal for a quid or so in Iceland than buying stuff and cooking.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 369.

    A body needs to consume energy jn order to work, energy that is provided by food. It can only do so if that food is already in the body. Eat first, before you start work. Top up as necessary to continue working.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 368.

    Cup of tea about 6AM, feed the cat, then off to work. The cat gets breakfast, not me. ;¬)

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 367.

    Ere! Why no menbtion of Tea Time?
    For the vast majority eating patterns are governed by working hours and disposable income. The rich and royal can do as they like and only those who delude themselves try to copy them. The belief that the first person to ever put a filling between two slices of bread was an Aristocrat is oh so synchophantic. Now retired I simply eat if I am hungry.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 366.

    If the Earl of Sandwich had invented rubber boots, and the Duke of Wellington had put meat between slices of bread, we would now be wearing sandwiches on our feet, and eating wellingtons.

 

Page 1 of 20

 

Features

  • Two sphinxes guarding the entrance to the tombTomb mystery

    Secrets of ancient burial site keep Greeks guessing


  • The chequeBig gamble

    How does it feel to bet £900,000 on the Scottish referendum?


  • Tattooed person using tabletRogue ink

    People who lost their jobs because of their tattoos


  • Deepika PadukoneBeauty and a tweet

    Bollywood cleavage row shows India's 'crass' side


  • Relief sculpture of MithrasRoman puzzle

    How to put London's mysterious underground temple back together


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.