Do you eat dinner and supper, or lunch and dinner, or lunch and supper? Mealtime language might be as localized as what to call that sandwich of cheese and meat on a long bun — sub or hoagie or gyro.

In medieval England the standard meal time was breakfast (to break the fast) first thing in the morning, dinner in the middle of the day, and supper not long before going to bed, which was sundown.

The large English breakfasts we think of were not common until the Victorian era. Until the 1800s the first meal of the day was toast or a bowl of gruel or porridge. If the host wanted to impress guests, a more lavish breakfast was offered.

In the Middle Ages the great nobles ate their large meal at noon or 1 p.m. with preparation beginning at sunrise and served with rehearsed aplomb. Lesser nobles, knights, and land owners ate a less elaborate fare but at the same hour.

The daytime working hours for merchants and tradesmen dictated that they eat at 2 p.m. then return to work. It would be assumed that they ate a larger meal in the evening after their shops closed. Served by one or two servants, the middle class dined on bread, soups, meat or fish, with food varying with the season.

Peasants worked six or seven hours, then stopped for a noon meal called dinner. It was their main meal and hearty, as they would return to the fields to work until sundown. Their meals were much like the middle class, but less food and less variety. It could be bread, porridge, cheese, beans, cabbage, turnips, whey, and fish or meat if available.

Aside from needed sustenance for laborers to work long days, lighting was another factor for eating the largest meal of the day at noon. Candles and lighting with gas lamps was expensive, so only the noble and wealthy could stay up much after sundown. Late dinners became more common in the 1700s.

In Middle Ages and Shakespearean times, extra meals eaten between dinner and supper were referenced: luncheon, nutrition, and nuncheon. That mid-afternoon meal was more of a snack and commonly taken by ladies.

In the late 1700s and the 1800s, lower and middle-class workers often traveled long distances to work in factories and mills and carried their lunch in a pail or sack. They then ate their dinner in the evening. An exception was on Sundays, when dinner was at noon. In many families, this is still a tradition.

In the 1700s Londoners began eating dinner at six in the evening, but rural Scotland still ate their dinner at noon, well into the late 1700s. Parisians ate diner by 4 p.m. but, by the 1800s, ate at 5 or 6 p.m. and ate souper at 2 a.m. But rural French ate diner at midday and souper in early evening.

To be continued

“Genealogy is more than names and dates. It is learning the culture of the time your ancestors lived.”

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Southern Arizona Genealogy Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at, where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.