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 as we know it didn’t exist for large parts of history. TheRomans 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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.