Americans Used to Eat Four Meals a Day

Rest in peace, “second supper”

Dinner Table
Tim MacPherson/cultura/Corbis

Three square meals a day are so overrated. At least, that’s what a Victorian American might have said when faced with the prospect of eating a mere breakfast, lunch and dinner. NPR’s Linton Weeks reports that the idea of three meals a day might be more modern than we think.

Weeks spoke with food historian Helen Zoe Veit, who tells him that some Americans, "did eat a separate meal first thing in the morning, when they would have quickly eaten cold leftovers before doing a few hours of work, only sitting down later in the morning to a larger, hot breakfast."

Using examples from bygone times, Weeks also reveals the tantalizing idea of a “second supper” — a luxury indulged in during social events. But why might people need a second supper after a first one?

Veit chalks it up to late nights and wealth. Physical exertion could be another clue. In the 1840s, writes Elizabeth Aldrich, Americans became obsessed with a dance called “the german,” which often began at private balls after midnight. Given the late hours and energetic steps, Aldrich notes, hostesses were told that a second supper was a must.

An 1885 etiquette guide concurs, warning that

It is not the correct thing…to give a ball or dancing-party and provide meagre or insufficient refreshments. The hostess who should do so would excited the wrath of dowagers and dancers alike, since dancing makes people very hungry, and the lookers-on — from sympathy, no doubt — usually become hungry also.

So the next time you feel like a fourth meal, you can just say you're reenacting Victorian life. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.