Opinion: Meal time

The concept of breakfast, lunch, and dinner is relatively new. Until the early nineteenth century, most working people ate four to five small meals a day with their main meal, dinner, in the middle of the day.

By Jeremy Ryland


Meal times remained relatively stable in the Middle Ages through to the early nineteenth century since meal schedules were closely linked to work schedules. Most people worked only during daylight hours; working at night was limited, as lighting was poor and expensive.


The meals eaten in the Middle Ages varied depending on the social class and the type of work undertaken. Working people ate four to five small meals a day while the upper classes had only two meals a day – dinner in the middle of the day and supper in the evening. Breakfast was not considered to be a real meal until the eighteenth century.


Our meal schedules and lifestyles owe a lot – good and bad – to Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb! The invention of electricity and artificial light opened up a wide range of enterprise, including longer working hours, working at night, entertainment after sunset and a general shift of activity into the evenings.


In the nineteenth century, greater leisure time combined with changes in dining styles and conviviality saw the dinner hour delayed into the late afternoon or early evening. Meal times changed among the social elite to accommodate the theatre and as people stayed up later at night, meals were gradually put back several hours until there was a significant distinction in meal times between the various social groups.


Breakfast assumed a more important role, becoming the first meal of the day, with dinner being the main meal in the late afternoon, evolving into the “three meals a day” pattern now accepted as normal. In early nineteenth-century England, breakfast for the upper classes was a fairly substantial meal, usually eaten around ten o’clock in the morning, after people had already spent several hours working, walking or writing letters.


By the end of the century, the breakfast hour had been moved back to around 8.00am and dinners had become later, eventually swallowing up supper.


Due to the long interval between meals, luncheon (or lunch) became established as a proper meal, rather than an arbitrary midday snack, and was particularly popular with women conferring social status on those who did not have to work.


Meal times adjust to meet social and working needs. The introduction of new flavours and foods from other parts of the world, together with the rise of “gourmet dining” rather than meals dictated by dietetics, also assisted in changing the role of meals, resulting in meal time changes to accommodate conviviality and social dining. The “liberation of the gourmet” saw eating and dining become fashionable in themselves and the social elite sought to demonstrate their fine tastes, combining dining with literature and the arts as a form of entertainment.


The art of dining was further refined with the introduction of furniture such as the speciality dining table and individual eating utensils, including the fork, as well as changing service styles, “service à la française” and later, “service à la russe”. These changes saw the role of dining change, further impacting on meal times.


There were significant changes to meal times during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe, as well as in the form of meals and the styles of service. This is also the time when new beverages such as tea, coffee and chocolate were more widely consumed, which also had an impact on how we socialise and dine. Indeed, meal times continue to evolve.


So, in summary – when you eat is really a matter of convenience and choice!