The Great American Meal Debate: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, or Supper?

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A colorful, whimsical illustration depicting the history and regional variations of American meal names. The image shows a map of the United States with iconic breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper foods representing different regions. The Northeast and West Coast are depicted with traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods like pancakes, sandwiches, and steak. The South and Midwest show variations where dinner might appear at lunchtime and supper in the evening, illustrated with foods like fried chicken and pot roast. The background is lively, with a vintage, playful style, integrating elements like a sun for breakfast, a clock for lunch, and a moon for supper, symbolizing the times of the meals. The illustration should be vibrant, engaging, and filled with fun details to explore, perfectly capturing the diversity and history of meal names across America.

By Larry Billinger

Bite into History: A Culinary Journey Through Meal Names

Ever found yourself puzzled at the dinner table—or should I say, the lunch table? This article was sparked by my step-dad, Jim, a proud Nebraskan who staunchly calls the 12pm meal ‘dinner’. This leaves the rest of us scratching our heads every time, wondering if we missed a memo from the Meal Naming Committee. Jim insists it’s the Nebraskan way, but really, what’s in a meal name? Well, folks, grab a snack and buckle up as we embark on a culinary quest to decode the enigmatic nomenclature of our daily bread, inspired by Jim and his midday ‘dinner’.

Breakfast: The Dawn Delight

  • Origins: Old English ‘break’ + ‘fast’ (ending a night’s fasting).
  • Time: Typically 6-9 AM.
  • Fun Fact: In medieval Europe, eating breakfast was frowned upon. It was a sign of gluttony!

Lunch: The Midday Munch

  • Origins: Short for ‘luncheon’, believed to be from the Spanish ‘lonja’ (a slice).
  • Time: Usually noon to 2 PM.
  • Regional Quirk: In parts of the South, “dinner” can actually mean lunch!

Dinner: The Prime-Time Plate

  • Origins: From Old French ‘disnar’, meaning main meal.
  • Time: Traditionally, the largest meal is around midday. Now, often in the evening (5-8 PM).
  • Did You Know? In the 18th century, dinner shifted later in the day as artificial lighting improved.

Supper: The Nightcap Nosh

  • Origins: Old French ‘souper’, meaning evening meal.
  • Time: Lighter meal, post-dinner, around 7-9 PM.
  • Fun Tidbit: “Supper” is more commonly used in rural areas and among older generations.

Cultural Cuisine: A Global Glimpse of Meal Names

Delving into the global kitchen, meal names and times offer a feast of cultural diversity:

  • Spain: Known for late dinners, often after 9 PM.
  • Italy: ‘Pranzo’ for lunch and ‘Cena’ for dinner, with regional variances in timing.
  • Japan: ‘Asa-gohan’ for breakfast, ‘Hiru-gohan’ for lunch, and ‘Ban-gohan’ for dinner, emphasizing ‘gohan’ (rice) as a staple.
  • India: Breakfast varies by region, with ‘Dopahar ka bhojan’ for lunch and ‘Raat ka bhojan’ for dinner in Hindi, times differing based on cultural norms.

Historical Feasts: The Evolution of Meal Times and Names

Meal times and names have been a fluid feast throughout history:

  • Ancient Rome: One main meal (‘cena’) in the afternoon.
  • Middle Ages: The nobility often ate two meals a day, while peasants usually had one.
  • 17th Century: The introduction of new foods from the Americas and increased trade changed eating habits, leading to more defined meal times.
  • Industrial Revolution: Work schedules led to more rigid meal times, shaping the breakfast, lunch, and dinner structure.

Regional Rendezvous: A U.S. Menu Map

Is there a “correct” American way to name meals? Not quite! It’s a regional recipe:

Morning Meal: Breakfast

  • All States: Universally referred to as “breakfast” across the United States.

Noon Meal: Lunch vs. Dinner

  • Lunch: Predominantly used in:
    • Northeastern States: Such as New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
    • West Coast States: Including California, Oregon, and Washington.
    • Northern States: Like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
  • Dinner: This term for the noon meal is more common in:
    • Southern States: Like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia.
    • Midwest States: Including Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Evening Meal: Dinner vs. Supper

  • Dinner: The more commonly used term in:
    • Most States: Especially urban and metropolitan areas across the U.S.
  • Supper: More prevalent in:
    • Rural Areas: Across various states, especially in the Midwest and parts of the South.
    • Older Generations: More likely to use “supper” regardless of state.

Regional Variations

  • South and Midwest: These regions exhibit the most variation, with some areas using “dinner” for the noon meal and “supper” for the evening meal.
  • Cultural Influences: Meal names might also reflect those influences in areas with strong cultural or immigrant communities.

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