Meals have become ingrained in each society as being natural and logical. What one culture eats may seem extraordinary to another. The same applies to what was eaten long ago in history, as food tastes, menu items, and meal periods have changed substantially over time.
In general, during the Middle Ages, the main meal for almost everyone took place at midday when there was no need for artificial lighting. During the 17th and 18th centuries, this meal, called dinner, was gradually pushed back into the evening, creating a greater time gap between breakfast and dinner. A meal called lunch came to fill the gap. A formal evening meal, artificially lit by candles, sometimes with entertainment, was a known as a “supper party” as late as the Regency era.
Up until the early 19th century, luncheon was typically reserved for the ladies, who would often have lunch with one another when their husbands were out. As late as 1945, Emily Post wrote in the magazine Etiquette that luncheon is “generally given by and for women, but it is not unusual, especially in summer places or in town on Saturday or Sunday, to include an equal number of men” – hence the mildly disparaging phrase, “the ladies who lunch”. Lunch was a ladies’ light meal; when the Prince of Wales stopped to eat a dainty luncheon with lady friends, he was laughed at for this effeminacy. Beginning in the 1840s, afternoon tea supplemented this luncheon at four o’clock. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) – a guide to all aspects of running a household in Victorian Britain, edited by Isabella Beeton –had much less to explain about luncheon than about dinners or ball suppers:
The remains of cold joints, nicely garnished, a few sweets, or a little hashed meat, poultry or game, are the usual articles placed on the table for luncheon, with bread and cheese, biscuits, butter, etc. If a substantial meal is desired, rump-steaks or mutton chops may be served, as also veal cutlets, kidneys… In families where there is a nursery, the mistress of the house often partakes of the meal with the children, and makes it her luncheon. In the summer, a few dishes of fresh fruit should be added to the luncheon, or, instead of this, a compote of fruit or fruit tart, or pudding.
With the onset of industrialization in the 19th century, male workers began to work long shifts at the factory, severely disrupting the age-old eating habits of rural life. Initially, workers were sent home for a brief dinner provided by their wives, but as the workplace was removed farther from the home, working men took to providing themselves with something portable to eat during a break in the middle of the day.
The lunch meal slowly became institutionalized in England when workers with long and fixed hour jobs at the factory were eventually given an hour off of work to eat lunch and thus gain strength for the afternoon shift. Stalls and chop houses near the factories began to provide mass-produced food for the working class, and the meal soon became an established part of the daily routine, remaining so to this day.
In many countries and regions, lunch is the dinner or main meal. Prescribed lunchtimes allow workers to return to their homes to eat with their families. Consequently, where lunch is the customary main meal of the day, businesses close during lunchtime. Lunch also becomes dinner on special days, such as holidays or special events, including Christmas dinner and harvest dinners such as Thanksgiving. On these special days, dinner is usually served in the early afternoon. Among many Christians, the main meal on Sunday, whether at a restaurant or home, is called “Sunday dinner”, and is served after morning church services.