Changes in Eating Patterns In History

Historically, most people had a problem getting enough food to eat. Being thin was usually a sign of poverty, while being robust (fatter) was equated with good health and prosperity. The more meals you ate, and the longer you took to eat them, the higher social class you belonged to and the richer and fatter you were.

For example, the ‘three square meals a day’ pattern of the late 19C and early 20C British middle and upper classes has evolved recently into the more ‘grazing and snacking’ pattern that we see today, especially among young people in the United States.

Meal Times

We think of meal times as fairly stable things, but actually meal times and what was eaten at them have changed throughout the centuries. Often meals like breakfast and lunch either didn’t exist or were insubstantial.

For many centuries the main meal of the day was called ‘dinner’ and eaten either in the morning, afternoon or evening depending on the century, season, location, and social class of the people. A light meal called ‘collation’ was eaten either early or later in the evening before retiring for bed. Breakfast was a meal that frequently wasn’t eaten at all, or would be something very simple just to ‘break the fast’.

In America

When people came to America they brought their eating habits and foods with them.

When immigrants would eat their meals depended on where the immigrants came from and where they lived.  They might have their main meal of the day around noon if they were farmers, or in the early evening if they lived and worked in the city.

As wider ranges of food became more available and affordable, breakfast generally became a much more substantial meal. A light simple meal was eaten in the middle of the day, either brought from home, or eaten in a workplace cafeteria or lunch counter. The main meal of the day moved to the evening when the whole family could eat together.

When people worked in hard physically demanding jobs, such as steel mills or coal mines, having large high calorific meals made sense as the calories would be burned up. Mothers would encourage their children to eat large quantities to build them up when food was plentiful, so that if food became scarce their children would have “meat on their bones” to get them through the hard times


These days, with our affluent society and sedentary lifestyle, obesity is causing major health problems, and is usually an indicator of poverty. Being very thin, although this is also not healthy, is seen as desirable and as a sign of wealth. Celebrities endanger their health by being super-thin to look better on television, while a lot of the general population grazes on cheap fast foods without taking sufficient exercise.

We need to find a balance between the two for the good of all of us in order to live healthy and long lives.

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