The invention of the American meal: Why we don’t eat pancakes for dinner (anymore)

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Why do we eat three meals a day and where did Americans’ eating habits come from? Those are questions scholar Abigail Carroll seeks to explain in her new book, “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.”

“I originally planned to write a book on the history of snacking in America, not a book about the American meal,” Carroll explained to TheDC in an interview about her new book. “I soon learned, though, that the story of the snack is wrapped up in a larger story about the meal — you can’t tell one story without the other, so in ‘Three Squares’ I tell both.”

Carroll said our habit of eating three meals a day is a “cultural construction, not a biological necessity.”

“When European colonists and settlers came to North America, they brought with them a tradition of eating three meals a day, but they encountered Native Americans who more or less grazed throughout the day — eating when they pleased,” she said. “This appalled the Europeans, who saw regular, set meals as a mark of civilization and thought of grazing as primitive and animal-like. But Europeans had not always eaten three meals a day. During the medieval era, breakfast was looked down upon and many simply ate two meals a day. During the Roman era, there was a one-meal-a-day ideal. Why we landed on three meals is hard to say, but what we can say is that fixed meals — and three of them per day — are a cultural construction, not a biological necessity.”

So why, exactly, do we eat pancakes for breakfast and not for dinner? And why don’t we eat ice cream for breakfast?

“Actually, pancakes typically showed up as dessert or a special holiday dinner in the 1600s and 1700s — not as breakfast,” Carroll explained.

“The day before Lent known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday has also been called Pancake Tuesday because pancakes were a rich, festive food people made to use up their milk and eggs before they started fasting. The Dutch introduced pancakes to the colonies — as well as doughnuts and waffles — and only in the 1800s did they begin showing up for breakfast.”

“As for ice cream, well why not?” she added. “We seem to like eating dessert for breakfast!”

See below TheDC’s full interview with Carroll about her new book and the American meal:

Why did you decide to write the book?

I originally planned to write a book on the history of snacking in America, not a book about the American meal. I had been conducting research for a museum exhibit on why we eat the way we eat, and I couldn’t find the answers to my questions about the history of snacking in any history books. No one had written a book about snacking, and I thought, why not write it myself? I soon learned, though, that the story of the snack is wrapped up in a larger story about the meal — you can’t tell one story without the other: so in “Three Squares” I tell both.


Where did the concept of three squares come from? Why not four meals?

When European colonists and settlers came to North America, they brought with them a tradition of eating three meals a day, but they encountered Native Americans who more or less grazed throughout the day — eating when they pleased. This appalled the Europeans, who saw regular, set meals as a mark of civilization and thought of grazing as primitive and animal-like. But Europeans had not always eaten three meals a day. During the medieval era, breakfast was looked down upon and many simply ate two meals a day. During the Roman era, there was a one-meal-a-day ideal. Why we landed on three meals is hard to say, but what we can say is that fixed meals — and three of them per day — are a cultural construction, not a biological necessity.

Why pancakes for breakfast but not for dinner? Why don’t we eat ice cream for breakfast?

Actually, pancakes typically showed up as dessert or a special holiday dinner in the 1600s and 1700s — not as breakfast. The day before Lent known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday has also been called Pancake Tuesday because pancakes were a rich, festive food people made to use up their milk and eggs before they started fasting. The Dutch introduced pancakes to the colonies — as well as doughnuts and waffles — and only in the 1800s did they begin showing up for breakfast. As for ice cream, well why not? We seem to like eating dessert for breakfast!

Why are certain American foods, such as hot dogs and hamburgers, iconic? And what makes our eating habits distinctive from other parts of the world?

Many iconic American foods are informal, hand-held, and snack-like. You can eat them on the go, at a fair or amusement park, or in the bleachers at a stadium. These tend to differ distinctively from traditional dinner-table food served on a plate and eaten with utensils. Sandwiches, while not exclusively American, have certainly become associated with the American way of life — once, a family in France asked me if Americans know how to use silverware because they pictured us eating sandwiches for most of our meals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that hot dogs and hamburgers — two of the most iconic American foods — are sandwiches!

You discuss how the pretzel was originally something drinkers’ enjoyed. Now you can get hot dogs in pretzel roles from Auntie Ann’s. What happened?

The pretzel had a questionable reputation for much of its early career because of its associations with the street, with dirt-poor immigrant vendors whose hygiene many found suspect, and with the saloon. In the 1920s, prohibition set pretzel manufacturers strategizing — how could they sell pretzels if people were no longer drinking beer? They came up with creative new functions for the pretzel as a standard party snack, a healthy and fun children’s snack food, and ultimately as part of lunch and dinner — an accompaniment to soups, a garnish for casseroles and salads, and an ingredient in piecrusts. By the 1950s the pretzel had become respectable, and a politician could even run for office with a pretzel as his campaign symbol.

You have a chapter called “How Dinner Became Special.” Dinner wasn’t always considered a special meal?

Dinner was once a highly functional affair. Families may have eaten it together, but they did not observe much in the way of table manners, and conversation was minimal because eating was serious business and hard-working bodies needed to be refueled. During the Industrial Revolution, everything changed. Families were no longer as likely to work together on farms and in artisanal businesses. Rather, father, mother, and children all headed in different directions during the day, and evening was the only time they had together — so it became special, and with it, dinner.


When did obesity become a problem in the U.S., and how have changes in eating habits contributed to the problem?

American weight has been on the rise for a while now, but the 1980s saw a definite spike, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same decade saw a veritable snack food explosion. That explosion continues, but it’s not just snack food that is to blame. We rely heavily on packaged, prepared, and processed foods, having largely outsourced cooking to the food companies. Some people say that obesity rates correlate with our commitment to home cooking (or lack thereof) because when we cook for ourselves we always end up eating more healthily. I think this concept is worth investigating.

Where does the American meal go from here?

Family dinners and home cooking have been in decline for several decades now, and we source more and more of our calories from snacking, which does not bode well for the meal. When we compromise the family meal, however, we compromise a lot more than the experience of family and homemade food — we also compromise our nutrition and our children’s intellectual and social development. Studies show that when people eat together, they eat more healthily. And when children eat regularly with their families, they strengthen their vocabulary, earn higher grades, and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs or suffer from eating disorders. But modern life doesn’t make it easy to maintain a family meal tradition, and this is a challenge we would do well to start talking about as a society. We’re talking about food now more than ever. I hope “Three Squares will help take that conversation a step further to focus on the family meal.

What is the most interesting story or fact you discovered researching the book?

I always knew that work influences the shape of our meals, but I never realized that work shapes all of our meals. It is perhaps the primary factor in why we eat the way we do. Dinner shifted from midday to evening to accommodate changing working schedules during the Industrial Revolution. Lunch also bears the imprint of work — it was in fact a product of the new working culture in the nineteenth century. Then breakfast changed to conform to work. It shifted from a heavy, meat-centered meal — the second largest of the day in the early 1800s — to a light, quick, grain-based meal that gave the office worker just enough calories to do sedentary work, but not too much so as to put him to sleep at his desk. With the rise of sliced bread, pop-up toasters, and cold cereal, breakfast became a quick, do-it-yourself affair that didn’t require tarrying at a table and (in the case of toast) could even be eaten on the way out the door. The more time saved on eating, the more time for working and earning. We like to think that meals organize our day, but it is really our work that organizes our meals.

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