Wondering if there is an origin of the "3 meals a day" concept. For example, in English we have specific words for them:

  • Breakfast.
  • Lunch.
  • Dinner.

But we have a few more for other meals in the day (I can only think of one actually):

  • Brunch.

According to this we can add:

  • Elevenses.
  • Tea.
  • Supper.

And then we have many special occasion (time independent) ones:

  • BBQ.
  • Feast.
  • ...

But the main ones are Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. We don't have many other specific names for meal times in the day.

Wondering if it's like this in all cultures currently, and if not, how variable it is (I know nothing about this). And then wondering where it got started if it's not universal.

The paleo diet has a lot of experimentation with meal times. Some even suggest a 8-12 meals a day. But it's too early to have names for those. Then they speculate about hunter-gatherer societies potentially eating at most 1-time in a day, maybe not for several days in a row. So wonder what kind of concepts they had for meals.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Semaphore Sep 21 at 6:52
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    "But the main ones are Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner." Main where? Not here in the North. It's breakfast, dinner and tea here. – Lee Sep 21 at 10:55
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    Thought I should point out "BBQ" is not remotely related to this. Nor is "Feast". Those are types of meals. You would say e.g. "We are having BBQ for dinner" – Lucky Kleinschmidt Sep 21 at 13:55
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    I don't think he knows about Second Breakfast, Pip. – corsiKa Sep 21 at 23:06
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    There's also fourthmeal. – Justin Lardinois Sep 24 at 2:10
up vote 89 down vote accepted

In "Millennium From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years"*, Mortimer explains the origin of 3 meals a day:

As for mealtimes, few people in northern Europe ate breakfast in 1501. The medieval two-meal rhythm of the day persisted: dinner was at about 11 a.m. and supper at about 5 p.m. But as more people moved into towns, and made their living by working long hours for other townsmen, the time at which they could have supper was pushed back into the evening. This meant that dinner, the main meal of the day, had to be eaten a couple of hours later and became lunch. It followed that you had to eat an early meal, breakfast, in order to get through to lunchtime. School also helped bring about this change, for more and more boys went to school, and the long lessons required that they eat breakfast. Hence breakfast was ubiquitous in towns by 1600.

Mortimer concludes:

By 1600 most people followed a routine that you will probably recognise. They washed their face and hands and cleaned their teeth when they got up in the morning. They had breakfast and went to school or work for about eight o’clock. They ate lunch around midday, and came home and ate supper with metal knives and spoons off plates, warming themselves at a fireplace.

As for hunter-gatherer, James Woodburn writes in Egalitarian Societies :

neither !Kung nor Hadza usually place much emphasis on formal meal times. A great deal of food is eaten informally throughout the day.[...] Marshall records that 'Meat is not habitually cooked and eaten as a family meal among the !Kung . . . The men, women, and children may cook their pieces when and as they wish, often roasting bits in the coals and hot ashes and eating them alone at odd times'

*The book was also printed under the title "Human Race: 10 Centuries of Change on Earth"

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    Nice answer, but I am not sure what to think about: By 1600 [...] went to school or work for about eight o’clock.... AFAIK, before artificial lighting became widespread, timetables were dependant on sunlight, so it would have been difficult to keep the same routine at the same hour all year round. Maybe the author is just simplifying his explanation, but still it seems a bit odd. – SJuan76 Sep 20 at 15:22
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    The implication in the quotes is that Mortimer is only talking about townspeople. These were in the minority in 1600. Population of the UK was about 4 million. Population of London, 250,000. All the other towns were tiny by comparison - the second largest had population of only around 20,000. (One reason towns didn't grow bigger was regular epidemics of fatal diseases) – alephzero Sep 20 at 15:38
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    Good answer, but I'm curious about people in 1501 not eating until 11am. Wouldn't they have mostly been farmers, waking up early and doing lots of manual labor? I would think they would be famished by 11am. – Jamie Clinton Sep 20 at 19:09
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    I'm pretty sure they ate; they just didn't sit down with other people to do it. Grab a loaf of bread, head out to the fields, takes bites when possible and as necessary. – chepner Sep 21 at 13:02
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    @JamieClinton: A description of the life of field workers in the early 20th century in Alentejo (a region of Portugal): in summer, the workers would start working shortly after sunrise (c.6am) and have their first meal at 9am (lunch), then their second meal at 12pm (dinner). There might be a snack (merenda) in the mid-afternoon and at night they'd have the ceia (supper). However, the workers might eat some bread and olives in the field before the work started, or just some olives if they had no bread. This 'fast breaking' wasn't mentioned as a meal, though. Curiously, the hours are similar... – Sara Costa Sep 22 at 21:20

Wondering if it's like this in all cultures currently, and if not, how variable it is

Well, it certainly isn't like that in all cultures.
In Spain we have 5 meals:

  • Desayuno
    • Similar to breakfast. 7-8 am.
    • Mainly coffee and/or some dairy product. Maybe some fruit, juice or cereals (specially kids and people who are not in a hurry to get to work).
  • Almuerzo
    • Second breakfast, similar to English lunch. 10-11 am.
    • Sandwich or toast, maybe fruit or juice, and probably coffee or a cold beverage. Usually depends on what you "missed" during breakfast.
  • Comida
    • Similar to dinner, but earlier: 1-3 pm.
    • Your usual three-course meal.
  • Merienda
    • Similar to afternoon tea, but later: 5-6 pm.
    • Kids get a sandwich, fruit, or some sweet snack. Adults usually have just a coffee and maybe some pastries.
  • Cena
    • Evening dinner, i.e. supper. 8-10 pm.
    • Like the comida but lighter (unless you're dining out).

Those hobbits knew what they were talking about ;)

Now, it is true that some people skips desayuno and just have a heavier almuerzo, verging on a brunch; and merienda is barely a thing anymore for many adults, because work :( But, in a general sense, most people follow this meal plan.

Just in case anybody needs sources...
- Los horarios y las comidas en España ("Schedules and meals in Spain") [PDF]. Spain's Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports; 2010.

Another one, with interesting comments: A qué hora y cuántas veces se come en España.

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    For completeness one might also note that the three-course lunch may be a luxury that people no longer have time for on workdays. – Peter Taylor Sep 21 at 16:33
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    Interesting. Am in Spain for 2 months and did not notice it. Is the Almuerzo and Comida, both, also usually practiced on workdays? – Jefrey Sobreira Santos Sep 21 at 17:42
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    I think very few people in Spain eats 5 times a day. The standard is 3 times a day, just as the English example described by the OP. Of course, more words exist for optional meals. – Pere Sep 21 at 18:11
  • My mom grew up on a farm in Missouri, USA, raised by German immigrants, and they ate 5 meals a day. This was in the timeframe 1930-1950. "Something fried at every meal" she liked to say. – Don Branson Sep 22 at 1:43
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    @walen That may depend on location, but after having lived all my life in Barcelona I can tell you that people having more than 3 meals a day are the exception - and the large exception are children who usually have a meal in the afternoon (merienda). Adults here don't usually eat in the afternoon, and although it's true that a lot of people makes a pause in the morning to eat, those who actually eat are those who haven't had breakfast at home. If you are right, maybe here in Barcelona we aren't Spanish and we don't follow Spanish customs - but that is a different issue. (continue) – Pere Sep 22 at 18:30

It is not like that in all countries.

In the Portuguese culture (Portugal, Brazil) there are typically 4 meals a day:

I don't know when this came about, but you can find out by opening a question on portuguese.se asking for the origin and earliest uses of "lanche" with its current meaning of "afternoon snack".

  • In Asian countries, breakfast is savoury and heavy. That might be interesting for you to look into - it's not different amount of meals, but it's different organization of them. – ANeves Sep 20 at 19:06
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    It is the same in many countries. E.g. in Argentina – user1420303 Sep 21 at 12:10
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    In Brazil, Breakfast is called "café da manhã" ("Morning's Coffe") or, more formally, "desjejum" ("break fasting"). – Jefrey Sobreira Santos Sep 21 at 17:41
  • @walen They call it café ... – Daniel Sep 23 at 21:39

According to this BBC article:

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."

This changed in the Middle Ages:

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 traditions also explain why the traditional British breakfast is an extremely unhealthy fatty meal:

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...

Most countries I know have 4 meals: Breakfast, Lunch, a small afternoon meal or Snack and Supper. Please note that most of these countries have influence of Spain, Portugal and in my particular country, Italy. So you could say most of Latin countries (both from Americas as European) have 4 meals, not 3.

Furthermore: in my country (Argentina), there's a book called "Cuatro Comidas: Breve Historia Universal del Desayuno, el Almuerzo, la Merienda y la Cena" (which translates to "Four Meals: Brief Universal History of Breakfast, Lunch, Snack and Dinner"). I didn't read it, but the author says the research goes back to Greeks and Romans

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Going out of the Latin influence, I noticed the same four meals in London and Paris.

And all this without going with the new recommendations of eating small portions many times a day

Bottom line is the 3 meals are far from being universal, and it seems to be just a localized subject, as proven by most answers provided here.

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