Three Squares

A History of American Meals

Published: November 8, 2012

Courtesy of LOC.gov

Three square meals a day. Three to five servings of fruits and vegetables, two to three servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. Avoid fats and sugar. Red meat in moderation…

But eating isn’t simply about a balanced diet. Mealtime facilitates the exchange of ideas and feelings; meals facilitate culinary diplomacy; they are markers of our class, race, culture and region. At mealtime, we honor — and sometimes subvert — tradition.

As we prepare for what for many is the biggest family feast of the year, we’ll be devoting this episode to the history of the “meal” in America. From Victorian table manners to the school lunch, how have our ideas about eating together evolved? As always, we need your help to create this show. What would you like to know about the history of the American meal? Ever wonder why your dining room was built the way it was? Has the food you serve to guests changed over the years? Leave your thoughts below.

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Comments (8)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Anise Hotchkiss

    I’m interested in the history of “saying grace.” Where did that practice begin? What was the intent behind the practice?
    How has it changed? Was it always traditional the patriarch to say grace?
    I’m writing on a book on spirituality and food, and this is one topic that I haven’t found alot of information on.
    Thanks!

  2. Stamatis Marinos

    I was wondering about the history of eating out in America. Why and how have people gone away from eating at home? In colonial times, I would imagine this really only happened when people were travelling.

    As cities grew and so did people’s commutes, did more people (men specifically) dine out at lunch or dinner so as to not have to go home to eat?

    Would dining away from home (and the drinking that I assume would go along with it), lead to efforts to create alternatives- things like church suppers and other ‘community building’ eating out functions (lenten fish fries, etc)?

    Does the rise of fast-food places in the 20th century reflect a trend away from the sharing of a meal as a means of strenghtening communal bonds to merely ‘re-fueling’? Or is it a sign of the democratization of that segment of the dining experience- eating out is now open to all, not just the wealthy?

    As more and more people eat out, what have been the correlating effects on food production and distribution- was the industrial agriculture model we have now born out of the way people ate, or did it help create a new way of eating?

    Thanks!

  3. Mike B.

    I’m curious why/when it became common in American culture to have the large meal of the day at dinner instead of lunch (industrial revolution maybe?). Also, where did our ideas about what is “Breakfast Food” ,”Lunch Food”, Etc.
    Thanks guys

  4. Lana

    I would like to know about the evolution of table manners as it pertains to children. When did it become accepted that children are to sit for an entire meal, use silverware, ask to be excused and generally behave at the table as adults behave? I am a mother to two young and very active boys and getting them to sit for an entire meal seems impossible. Have all mothers throughout history felt this way? =)

  5. Brooke

    As I prepare my grocery shopping list, I find myself wondering why eating has become so very complicated. A friend posted a video compilation of factory farm footage earlier today and I feel guilty about eating meat again (this comes and goes in waves), but I can’t figure out how healthy tofu and seitan really are, particularly because everyone who wants to tell me they’re healthy seems to be writing a vegetarian food blog. Plus, I’ve read that too much consumption of soy is bad for you for a variety of reasons, and of course, there are GMOs and…well, you get the idea. With all the information out there, my head just starts spinning. Over-thinking what we eat is certainly a luxurious first world problem, but is it specifically American?

    In contrast, my 92-year-old grandma recently passed away and I had the opportunity to go through her old recipe box–fascinating! As I read the recipes aloud to family members, it became a running joke that 90% of them involved a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, which leads me to my other question–why were casseroles such a major part of the American diet during that period? Does their popularity stem from the great depression?

    Thanks,
    Brooke

  6. Erin

    In college, I took some courses about American women’s history. One of the topics we covered was cooking in the home and the advent of ‘boxed’ meals. I recall my professor telling us about the early days of boxed baked goods, like brownies and quick breads. The ingredients were manufactured in such a way that the only thing that needed to be added was milk or water. For some reason this didn’t sit well with women who baked for their families. To remedy this, companies removed the egg ingredient from the pre-made package so that people could add an egg at home. Apparently this worked.

    I’d be curious to learn more about how pre-packaged goods changed ways of food preparation and the roles of people (not just women, but also men and children).