The European transition from beer and bread to a modern balanced breakfast
My kids really like having “breakfast for dinner,” which would be an extremely confusing concept back in the 1400s. Not only did a formal breakfast menu not really exist back then (at least in Europe,) but “dinner” was the first real meal of the day, eaten sometime around brunch, or possibly elevensies. Even if you did get someone to agree to the menu-swap, they’d still be digging into things like bread, cheese and ale, missing the whole point of having pancakes in the evening. Fortunately, much of this was corrected by 1600, setting up our world of balanced breakfasts as we know them today.
Medieval Europeans generally dined twice a day, first with dinner around 10:30 am and then supper around 4:00 pm. These meals could be simple, or draped in pomp and circumstance if special guests were coming, but breakfast wasn’t really a thing. Small snacks may have been eaten in the morning, but historical records find little mention of them outside of unusual circumstances in one’s schedule for the day. Travelers needing to get an early start, or monks who would be singing and laboring early on in the day were noted as breakfast eaters, mainly because they would be busy so many hours before dinner.
The morning menu
Even when recorded, breakfast seemed to just be an early version of later meals. Bread, ale and wine were common. If one had further means or station, cheese and some kind of meat or fish might be added to the menu. By the 1500s, eggs and seasoned butters were becoming popular, and breakfast was starting to gain a reputation as being good for one’s health. The real kicker came in 1615, when Pope Clement VIII gave a thumbs up to drinking coffee. People noticed that they started perking up after drinking the brewed beans, which then overtook other brews like beer or wine as the preferred way to start the day.
Scheduling your sustenance
The role of breakfast in general evolved alongside the menu. While the meal had once been thought of as a supplement, maybe appropriate for the infirm, by 1602 it physicians were recommending it for everyone under the age of 40 (when you could then cut back to two meals a day again.) People’s scheduling came back into play as well, as more and more people were moving from their own daily schedules to being employed by others, requiring set hours. These hours usually included a specified dinner break, like our lunch breaks today, but those breaks were usually late enough in the day that nobody could last until midday to eat some food, and so it became necessary to eat before heading off to work each morning.
Breakfast might now be at a new crossroads, as people’s schedules are very crowded and fractured. Many people only grab a small snack on their way out the door each morning, while others are shifting to hot cooked proteins. From a health perspective, eating right after waking up isn’t proving to be terribly important, as long as when you do it it’s not just empty filler food. A big difference from the Medieval laborers or travelers is that we probably have more access to small snacks on demand, even while working, and so when we eat is a little more fluid than it used to be. Most of us probably aren’t starting the day with beer or wine either, so while things are shifting, they’re not winding back the clock entirely.
Source: How the Tudors invented breakfast by Ian Mortimer, History Extra