Why Three Meals a Day? And Why Those Three?

Duke political science doctoral candidate Matt Dickenson had a great post last week in which he looked at the micro-institutions we call “meals.”

Inspired by the traditional American thanksgiving “dinner,” which is often eaten around 3PM (i.e., between the usual times for lunch and dinner in the United States), Matt asked why most of us eat three meals a day, and why are those three meals breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

Here’s an excerpt from his post:

This break from the usual three meals a day pattern offers a chance to ask: how long has the breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule been the norm?

Not that long, as it turns out. Eating patterns in history have often been shaped by three factors: politics, economics and religion. Take breakfast, for example. Food historian Caroline Yeldham reports it was not always seen as the most important meal of the day:

“The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day,” she says. “They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”

There is at least one famous individual — made even more famous in recent weeks — whom I recall is known for eating only one meal a day. I myself am experimenting with 16/8 intermittent fasting (i.e., eating only from noon to 8 PM) for the next few weeks.

Matt goes on:

Economically speaking, eating patterns often “trickle down” from the wealthy to the poorer classes:

“In about the 17th Century it is believed that all social classes started eating breakfast, according to chef Clarissa Dickson Wright. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich.”

This is reminiscent of how baby names trickle down from the wealthy to the poorer classes as well.

Having been influenced by Ellickson’s theory of social norms (see here and here), according to which social norms emerge and evolve so as to maximize wealth and minimize transaction costs, I find the study of those norms — a subset of what Matt calls micro-institutions — fascinating.

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