The History of Breakfast, Brunch & Lunch as We Know Them
Literary evidence is the source of most of our historical information about the times of the day when meals were customarily taken. Ancient authors like Galen had recommended people eat two meals per day. The first smaller meal, dinner, should be taken at around 11:00 am, and a larger meal, supper, follows six hours later at around 5:00 or 6:00 pm. These authors reasoned that since the digestive powers are stronger during sleep when the digestive heat is withdrawn inward, and because there are more hours between the evening and morning meal, that supper should be the larger meal. These recommendations follow ancient practice and coincide with early modern custom in Spain and some parts of Italy like Venice and Genoa.
But the rest of Europe followed a different pattern–eating the larger meal in the late morning and smaller meal in the evening. The evidence for this comes foremost from literary descriptions of meals that usually take place mid-day. Even in the vast majority of cookbooks that offer menus, the grander meal was held at mid-day. What is clear is that meal times gradually shifted, dinner being held later and later in the day.
In the sixteenth century, dinner was held around 11:00 am. By the seventeenth century, it had crept to 12:00 or 1:00 pm. Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century English diarist, recorded several dinners he ate at 12:00 pm, replete with heavy drinking. In the eighteenth century, fashionable diners, and the gentry and business classes in the cities who sought to imitate them, ate dinner later and later in the afternoon. Actually the usual dinner time was 2:00 or 3:00 pm by mid-century, and by the late eighteenth century it was perhaps as late as 4:00 or 5:00 pm.
Only in more recent times has it come to rest in the evening, when supper consequently became less important. This development necessitated the invention of a new mid-day meal, lunch, which only became standard at the very end of the eighteenth century. Thus, the three-meal-a-day pattern we are familiar with is a relatively recent phenomenon. The English afternoon meal called “tea” as a snack between lunch ad dinner also did not emerge until the nineteenth century.
Breakfast as a meal is even more elusive for which to find literary evidence. Judging from cookbooks and dietary literature, there was no such meal, or at least it was only recommended to children, invalids and the elderly who have weak digestive systems and must eat smaller meals more frequently. Nevertheless, there was such a meal, and some people took it regularly. What appears to have happened is that as dinner moved later in the day, people were hungrier first thing in the morning, especially when the evening meal was relatively small.
Breakfast was not a leisurely meal; it was, as its name implied the breaking of the fast of the night before. Historically the last meal of the day would have been eaten much earlier in the evening than it is today, so people would have gone for a longer period without eating and would wake up in much greater need of refreshment. Breakfast provided the initial fuel for the working day ahead and was substantial—although many people, such as farm workers, put in a couple of hours of work before breakfast was eaten, and so would have built up quite an appetite. By the nineteenth century, generally speaking, the later you ate breakfast, the more leisured your lifestyle.
In countries where the evening meal was larger, breakfast did not become important. In southern Europe, it is still not a proper meal, but merely coffee and perhaps a piece of bread or pastry. In England and the north, the pattern was quite different. By the eighteenth century, breakfast was eaten around 9:00 or 10:00 am in the morning. Only in the nineteenth century did it emerge as a full and sumptuous meal with bacon, eggs and even steaks.
This kind of evidence, of course, only relates to the meal patterns of the upper classes. From the comments of dietary writers who usually disapproved of common custom, it is certain that laboring people ate many more meals, usually a breakfast, dinner in the mid-morning, some form of snack at sundown, and then a small supper late in the evening. This pattern also persisted despite the shift in meal times among elites.