by Kate Woodford
Here at ‘About Words’ we’re always happy to get ideas for posts that we could write. A reader of this blog recently asked for a post on the language of meals and we thought this an excellent idea. If you are reading this post and have an idea for a topic or area of the language that you would like us to write about, please do say.
In the order that we eat them, then, breakfast is the meal that we have in the morning as the first meal of the day, lunch is what we eat in the middle of the day and dinner is our evening meal. This sounds simple enough, though in both the US and the UK it is a little more complicated than this – and in different ways!
In the UK, the meal that is eaten in the middle of the day is sometimes called ‘dinner’ and the meal in the evening may be referred to as tea. ‘Tea’ is used especially if the meal is of a simple type, prepared for children, often eaten early in the evening: Have the children had their tea?
In the UK, ‘tea’ may also refer to a small meal in the afternoon, in which tea is drunk and often a slice of cake eaten. Restaurants and cafes often serve ‘afternoon tea’, which may include sandwiches as well as cake with a drink of tea.
In the US, ‘dinner’ can mean a large meal eaten in the middle of the day or in the evening: Sunday dinner or the dinner on the Thanksgiving holiday are usually eaten in the early or late afternoon.
Another meal word that is sometimes heard is supper. It has two meanings. ‘Supper’ was used, especially in the past, to refer to a very small meal that was eaten before bed. Nowadays, it is sometimes used instead of ‘dinner’, meaning the main meal in the evening: We’re having some friends over for supper. In the US, ‘supper’ is still used to refer to a smaller evening meal that is eaten after a big afternoon dinner.
Brunch is a meal sometimes eaten in the late morning that is breakfast and lunch combined, the letters ‘br’ from ‘breakfast’ and ‘unch’ from lunch.
That, then, is a guide to meal names depending on the time at which they are eaten. Other words used for meals refer to the amount eaten or the style of the meal. A snack, for example, is a very small meal, often one that you eat between meals or instead of a bigger meal: Let’s have a quick snack before we go./It says on the menu that they serve ‘light snacks’. A packed lunch (also called a box lunch in the US) is a light meal that is put in a container to be taken and eaten somewhere else: He takes a packed lunch to school.
A buffet (pronounced ˈbʊf.eɪ in UK English and bəˈfeɪ in American English) is a meal at which people can choose their food from a number of dishes on a table: a wedding buffet/a buffet-style breakfast. Meanwhile, the opposite style of meal in which food is served to people who are sitting at a table is sometimes described as a sit-down meal.
A barbecue (abbreviation BBQ) is a meal prepared and eaten outside, in which the food is cooked on a metal frame over a fire. In US English, the word cookout is also used for a meal cooked and eaten outside, usually with a group of people.