Skip breakfast, and you risk reproof for missing "the most important meal of the day" — even if the science doesn’t support the idea that it makes any difference in your weight. But this reificiation of breakfast is relatively new, at least in the Western world. Breakfasts are little mentioned in historical literature, whereas mid-day and evening meals, feasts and banquets can claim entire books, writes Ian Mortimer for the BBC's History Extra.
"The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day," food historian Caroline Yeldham told BBC News Magazine in 2012. "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."
In Europe’s Middle Ages breakfast was so rarely taken that even monarchs, whose moves were carefully recorded, don’t appear to have eaten what we now regard as the first meal of the day. Instead, medieval people typically had a main meal around 10:30 or 11 in the morning and a second meal about five hours later. But a few people did eat earlier in the morning. Mortimer writes:
[B]efore 1500 non-ceremonial breakfasts were routinely taken by several sections of society. First, breakfast was seen as medicinal: people might be prescribed “a breakfast of…” as a means to sustain them in illness or old age. In 1305, Edward I (then aged 65), employed a cook just to prepare breakfasts.
Second, we find certain classes of monks eating breakfast. Old and sick monks fall into the category above, of course; but in addition young monks were permitted a light breakfast. At Peterborough it was argued that if the young monks did not have a breakfast, they ate so much at dinner they fell asleep in the afternoons.
The monks likely ate breakfast before they sang early Mass. Travelers too, on the road early, might indulge in something, though it often was only ale or wine. The meal was often leftovers from the night before, food historian Abigail Carroll told Smithsonian.
The shift toward three meals, including breakfast, took place in several steps.
First, workers bringing in the harvest expected a breakfast from the manor they worked for—paid for by the lady of the manor—because they worked such long hours and rose so early. Ceremonial breakfasts that accompanied the induction of new members to guilds and corporations are recorded in the 14th and 15th centuries. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that nobles, who could afford to sleep in, started taking breakfast often.
In 1558 the executors of Henry Willoughby’s estate were given a breakfast of bread, ale and a sweet dish made of eggs, butter, sugar and currants. Thomas Cogan remarked in The Haven of Health (1584) that “bread and butter” was a countryman’s breakfast. Butter became exceedingly popular. Various herbs were added to butter to impart their properties to the breakfaster: sage was thought to sharpen the wits, so this was a popular additive.
The idea that breakfast could do you good was no longer considered to apply solely to the sick and old. Indeed, in some quarters, people began to think that the old did not need breakfast at all. In 1602 the physician William Vaughan advised: “Eat three meals a day until you come to the age of 40 years.”
But the rise of regular working hours cemented the practice. A statute in 1515 required that craftsmen and laborers should start work at 5 a.m. and continue until 7 or 8 p.m. between mid-March and mid-September. Since then, most people still work long hours and breakfast has morphed to an expected meal. And like all meals, we continue to debate what exactly we should eat to be healthy — the answer is probably not cereal, at least in its current form.