Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The Meals We Eat

Photo credit: Jer Thorpe

Across the country yesterday, Americans engaged in a massive coordination game. Most people in the US took the opportunity to spend time with friends and family during the one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Expectations about the meal varied from the tried and true (Turkey, pumpkin pie) to the exotic, but most Thanksgiving dinners were high calorie affairs in the late afternoon or evening. This break from the usual three meals a day pattern offers a chance to ask: how long has the breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule been the norm?

Not that long, as it turns out. Eating patterns in history have often been shaped by three factors: politics, economics and religion. Take breakfast, for example. Food historian Caroline Yeldham reports it was not always seen as the most important meal of the day:

“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.”

Certain religions are known for dictating what you can and cannot eat, but they also influence the time of day that meals are consumed:

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.

Economically speaking, eating patterns often “trickle down” from the wealthy to the poorer classes:

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.

Industrialization also shaped the way we think of midday eating:

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….

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 last meal of the day, dinner, has a longer pedigree but has been powerfully influenced by two more recent innovations: electric lighting (which made it possible to eat later) and television (which popularized cooking shows). There is more at the BBC, from which the quotes above are taken.

Patterns of daily life that we take for granted are often shaped by much larger factors–more evidence for a politics of everyday life.

3 thoughts on “Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The Meals We Eat

  1. Pingback: Why Three Meals a Day? And Why Those Three? | Marc F. Bellemare

  2. Very interesting. We take so many things for granted today and succumb to the thinking that the way it is is the way it has always been, which is rarely the case.

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