By  LAUREN MCGOWAN & ANN DEE SRY

Over the millennia, the dining and eating habits of human beings have transformed in tandem with our ever-evolving cultures and increasingly complex lifestyles. From its humble hunter-gatherer beginnings, humanity has since explored a variety of dining and eating practices, as varied and extensive as our cultural backgrounds.

Photo Courtesy of Bettmann Collection/Corbis

Past

Prior to the advent of artificial lighting, eating habits were decidedly influenced by the demands of daylight. Agricultural laborers were driven by the relatively brief workday: they ate before heading into the fields, had a meal to sustain them mid-day, and ate again upon returning home at sunset, just before bed. The wealthy might eat their last meal a bit later in the evening, as they could afford to remain awake past sundown due to the use of expensive candles and lamplight. However, the biggest meal of the day for all classes was eaten mid-day: it stood to reason that the most important meal would be held and prepared when daylight was abundant. As put by Sherrie McMillan: “In the Middle Ages, great nobles ate the most formal dinner, around noon or one p.m. Their dinner was more than a meal; it was an ostentatious display, a statement of wealth and power, with dozens of servants attending in a ritualized performance… The meal might take hours, and be eaten in the most formal and elaborately decorated chambers.”[1] Denise Winterman adds that the practice of a single large meal eaten at mid-day was in place even during the Roman Empire.[2]

It was the Industrial Revolution which considerably altered our practice of mealtimes to the three-meal-a-day norm as we know it today. Workers required an early meal- breakfast- to sustain them before heading into the factories, a mid-day meal (usually eaten at work, away from home) at lunchtime, and subsequently ate dinner upon returning home at the end of the day. Comments Winterman: “The middle and lower classes eating patterns were also defined by their working hours. By the late 18th Century most people were eating three meals a day in towns and cities.”[3] The Industrial Revolution, and the accompanying rise of urban centers also transformed our attitudes towards each meal of the day- how much we ate, how it was prepared, and when. From the mid-day meal of the middle ages- something to be appreciated and savored- we moved to the modern concept of lunch: it became an on-the-go meal, made for convenience more than appreciation. According to Max Watman of the Wall Street Journal:

“As we moved to the cities, and then to the suburbs, we traveled ever farther from our kitchens. We left home more to work in business districts, and eating a big meal in the middle of the day was impractical. The noon meal developed into something smaller, which could be eaten quickly, at automats, on the run—lunch. The peanuts and pretzels once bought from beleaguered street urchins were replaced by new sources of cheap nourishment, wrapped in shiny packaging, sealed against dirt, kept fresh. Our kitchens grew modern, filled with labor-saving appliances, and we spent more time luxuriating in front of televisions and ate more snacks.”[4]

Present

As humans have adapted and evolved to present day’s technologies, so have our eating habits. One of the biggest changes we have seen, especially in the corporate world, is the disappearance of a full meal at lunch. Researchers at the University of Westminster have found that today, the average time taken to eat lunch is roughly 15 minutes, and it is usually in front of a computer.[5] It is clear that instead of adapting our schedules to our meals, we adapt our meals to our schedules. In the bustling, highly functioning cities that we live in, our priorities have shifted from the large luxurious sit down lunches of the past, to quick snacks throughout the day and small meals designed for fast and easy consumption. Indications of our desire for efficiency are seen in the abundance of fast casual restaurants, to-go shops, and food trucks that we see on nearly every street corner. Convenience has become a necessity, and we have seen our eating habits adjust accordingly, especially in recent years.

Another present day meal trend that has become very popular is brunch. This breakfast-lunch combination meal most frequently takes place on weekends, and provides a rare, middle of the day opportunity to sit and enjoy a meal. Brunch has become a social event that people can look forward to, and is not about what is eaten, but how it is eaten: with a group, for a long period of time. This novelty is unheard of during the work week, and further explains how brunch is becoming a staple for the masses.

The location of our meals today has also seen a shift from past habits. The desire for convenience has infiltrated not only office life, but home life as well. Taking the time to prepare and eat a meal at home has becomes more of a hobby or a pastime, rather than a formal family affair at the end of each day. We are seeing more and more families dining out, picking up take-out, or preparing quick meals that require minimal effort. The death of the family dinner first began in 1986 when the first microwave oven was invented, and since then it has remained an essential appliance to every kitchen.[6]

Future

With an ever-growing awareness of the contents and impact of what we eat, eating in the future will undoubtedly become more conscious, deliberate, and linked to lifestyles which don’t much allow for extended meals set at rigid times. Meals will, we imagine, be governed by convenience and linked much more directly to sustenance. The celebratory meal, a social event unto itself, will punctuate our menus and act as interlude to a more functional way of eating.


Sources:

[1] McMillan, Sherrie. “History Magazine.” What Time Is Dinner? History Magazine, Oct.-Nov. 2001. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.history-magazine.com/dinner2.html&gt;.

[2] Winterman, Denise. “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? – BBC News.” Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? BBC News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20243692&gt;.

[3] Winterman, Denise. “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? – BBC News.” Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? BBC News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20243692&gt;.

[4] Watman, Max. Book Review: ‘Three Squares’ by Abigail Carroll. Wall Street Journal, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323808204579084962798954986&gt;.

[5] Winterman, Denise. “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? – BBC News.” Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? BBC News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20243692&gt;.

[6] Winterman, Denise. “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? – BBC News.” Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them? BBC News, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 May 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20243692&gt;.

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