Cheeseburger for breakfast, cereal for lunch
August 24, 2007 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Why do we eat "breakfast foods"? When did this originate and why?

So eating my pancakes this morning, I started to wonder about the strangeness that is breakfast. There are foods for breakfast that you don't eat at other points of the day, while you don't eat most other dishes for breakfast. It hasn't always been this way. Why the cultural shift?
posted by lubujackson to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I remember seeing 1940s TV public ADs.. in documentary about breakfast.

It says... Before 1940s.. Eggs weren't really much part of breakfast... but in 40's the government and chicken farmers lobby decided that eggs are good protein source and promoted the idea.

Also.. the cereals are relatively new thing... I don't remember the years.. maybe between late 1800 to early 1900.. when Kellog developed cereal from bread crums for his health diet clinic, he commercialized it for easy fast on the go meal in the morning.

In other cutures, specially in Asian countries, breakfasts are no special than lunch or dinner.... i think it is western european cutures developed this idea... Italians are notorious for having certain food in certain time....

My personal theory is that since most people scramble for work in the morning time (farmers, well basically any one who works which is most people).. they had to have something fast yet have enough nutrition until the lunch time. Which sort a made people to invent something quickly unlike the other meals....
so maybe this is why people didn't eat breakfast food in the evenings...(thinking.. why eat something that is half fast done like breakfast when you have time to cook proper meal like dinner food)

I can be totally wrong.. but your question got me thinking.
posted by curiousleo at 10:08 AM on August 24, 2007

Personally, I'll eat breakfast food any time of the day. But that's just me.

I am pretty sure that breakfast is a cultural thing, like most foods. A bowl of rice and some soup is a traditional breakfast in many parts of Asia, for instance. Note that even in America, there are some 'traditional' breakfast choices that might seem a bit weird - for instance steak and eggs.

Modern breakfast cereal, of course, is an artifact of the late 19th century. I do think that leo has a good idea about time being an issue. Although cooking pancakes takes a while.
posted by mrthotep at 10:11 AM on August 24, 2007

Interesting question -- which brought me to read the Wikipedia entry on the subject. Fascinating how the breakfast "menu" varies around the world.
posted by ericb at 10:12 AM on August 24, 2007

Here's an interesting webpage at food timeline if not answering you question entirely:

Most people through time "broke their fast" with a warm drink (soup, tea) and a simple grain product (rice, oatmeal, bread). This combination stimulated the stomache, preparing it for the day's meals. While many "traditional" [British, American] breakfasts items consumed today trace back to ancient times (eggs, sausage, pancakes, doughnuts/fritters), few people through time were fortunate enough to enjoy them as is customarily promoted today. "Traditional" British and Irish breakfasts marketed to today's holiday celebrants and vacationers are typically reminiscent of wealthy-class Victorian fare. Brunch is closely related. Today few people partake of this traditional meal. Why? Time constraints and health concerns.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:21 AM on August 24, 2007

Some people feel queasy or reluctant to eat first thing in the morning. Perhaps the lighter, simpler foods like grains and toast are popular because they are more appetizing to such people.
posted by orange swan at 10:29 AM on August 24, 2007

High carbs, high sugar = more energy, which would be important for when people did more physical labor.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:51 AM on August 24, 2007

you want to read this. more accurately, you want the book "propaganda" by edward l. bernays. (you can download the pdf of this book there, as it's currently out of print [and in the public domain], but, as i'm sure you'll see upon reading, it's defninitely not out of the marketplace of ideas, as it remains a critically important work.)

bernays' book is not, to be sure, about breakfast in particular, but it is about the birth of contemporary marketing and advertisements, and in this book he recounts the birth of the 'bacon' marketing program, which transformed what had theretofore been a simple commodity (pork bellies) into the breakfast food of the nation. so, the short answer to your "why" question is: advertising. and the short answer to your "when" question is: early 20th century. (see curiousleo's recollections of egg documentaries above. those programs were exactly what bernays was working, writing, and thinking on.)

mrthotep is also right on. back when i lived in korea, i noticed that only us foreigners in residence (called "way-gook saram", in korean) had any interest in breakfast foods. koreans tended to eat the same things for breakfast, more or less, as they did for lunch or dinner: rice, soup, and a couple few side dishes or small entrees.

our traditional north american breakfasts (pancakes, eggs, sausage, etc.), like all other foods, are cultural products, and therefore determined by the culture they arise out of. but check out the bernays book. seriously. it may not change your life, but it'll answer a lot of questions that you have (save for one: why haven't the substances and strategies of advertising and p.r. changed over the last 80-odd years?).
posted by deejay jaydee at 10:57 AM on August 24, 2007 [8 favorites]

Why the cultural shift?

Changing work patterns: not just working hours, but proximity to work.

I'd also speculate that the cooked breakfast is actually the late/main meal for people whose working day draws to a close as the office day begins. You'll certainly see that at working wholesale markets.
posted by holgate at 11:01 AM on August 24, 2007

Here's a brief article from CuisineNet on the history of cereals. Everything you ever wanted to know about breakfast in Japan. And, if you're interested, a 2005 ABC News poll on the breakfast habits of Americans.
Just for fun, here is a great PSA from the 70's about eating breakfast. And here is an updated version. Ah, the joys of CGI.
posted by willie11 at 11:03 AM on August 24, 2007

the little kid in me has always loved breakfast because of one thing: no vegetables! you've got your meat (bacon, sausage), your grains (cereal, pancakes), protein (eggs), dairy (milk, cheese), and even fruit (mmm, cantaloupe). but aside from a veggie omelette, vegetables rarely "go" with breakfast foods.
i realize this isn't answering the question, but more like contributing to it.
posted by kidsleepy at 11:12 AM on August 24, 2007

I remember visiting Seoul in high school with a youth group...we skipped breakfast for several days because the hostel was serving kimchi and other "non-breakfast" food. The cooks noticed, and one day served us Kentucky Fried Chicken for breakfast. That's the first time I realized that not only do different cultures eat different food, they have different concepts of what "meals" are. (We did eventually get a breakfast of eggs and toast!)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 11:36 AM on August 24, 2007

It has something to do with Freud's Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations.
posted by glibhamdreck at 11:50 AM on August 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I always figured eggs were a logical breakfast food because hens usually lay their eggs first thing in the morning and eggs don't take long to cook so you can have a fresh, hot quick meal and get on with your day's work.

You don't want to leave eggs around where the hens can eat them (yes, they're fine young cannibals) or rats can get them, so gather 'em up and cook some for breakfast.
posted by Quietgal at 12:05 PM on August 24, 2007

I always thought of eggs with breakfast because you go out to get the eggs in the morning on the farm, sorta thing, whereas you have the food you pick out of the garden after a long day harvesting, or the fresh slaughter (the roast as opposed to the sausage or ham) for dinner at the end of the day.

But really you could expand the question to why we even have three meals a day instead of just randomly eating whenever we're hungry, or why we sit down to eat instead of just nibbling as we go, or why we eat some animals and not others, and so forth. These are almost all cultural traditions, and there are some interesting writers who get into some of it (Harris looks at the latter stuff, eg). Seinfeld ate cereal for dinner; plenty of college kids eat cold pizza for breakfast; 24 hour diners pretty much prove that people will eat eggs at any time of day (since it's usually nuts to order anything but breakfast from those places), so it's not like these things are rigidly followed.

I remember playing "scattegories" with my family once, and the category was "breakfast foods" starting with an M, and my cousin said "Mung beans" which had the rest of us laughing until we were practically crying as she kept trying to defend her answer, that Mung beans were a standard, traditional breakfast food. And of course later I found out that she was right - at the time it had seemed obvious she had just been grasping for any "M" word food, and was bluffing, but I was later told that in some asian cultures, it's what's for breakfast.

So in the end I think the tradition of having this at this time and that at that time is just another way to ritualize our lives. It's not really so important what it is at each time, but that we have something slightly different at different times allows us to create a narrative - the opening ceremony differs from the closing ceremony. Dinner is usually the "grand finale" of the day, so it often gets the big platter, but on the other hand, breakfast has to get you ready to work, so you might want to throw some protein into that, too, like eggs or beans (traditional english also often have mushrooms & tomatoes). Breakfast usually doesn't take very long to prepare - you can make eggs or pancakes pretty quickly, whereas a "real" dinner is often a much bigger undertaking. Lunch is just the break where you have a little something - leftover dinner refurbished, eg - sandwich made of last night's roast, kinda thing.

(One thing I find interesting is looking at old movies and seeing what they consider a meal vs what we consider a meal now - we really eat a lot these days. Sometimes you still see this traveling to foreign countries where the portions are still more modest.)
posted by mdn at 12:08 PM on August 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

All the other answers are really interesting and I've got some reading ahead of me. My family often eats "breakfast for dinner." I'll make anything from biscuits and gravy to waffles and bacon, along with a substantial portion of fruit. It's a nice change and the kids love it.

Incidentally, my son has never really liked "breakfast" foods and will usually eat dinner leftovers from the previous night in the morning. He also loves salads for breakfast. It's hard for me to make them (the smells kill me first thing in the morning, especially the garlic croutons he loves so much) but what he eats is probably much healthier in the long run (less sugar than cereals, good amounts of protein for the brain).
posted by cooker girl at 12:22 PM on August 24, 2007

Swedes will sometimes have open-faced sandwiches for breakfast (or lunch) and waffles or Swedish pancakes for dinner. Especially with strawberries and whippped cream. Mmmm.

I, too, will have breakfast food any time of the day but I don't like pizza for breakfast. OTOH, steak (dinner food) & eggs for breakfast? You bet.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:04 PM on August 24, 2007

For a short time I was the colleague and housemate of a Ukrainian in Kiev. The day I moved in, I found that he had recently cooked a stockpot full of brown peas (originally dry, now soaked, boiled, and mashed, resembling refried beans). I had some at dinner, among other things. Next morning, he was thinking out loud about what to eat, in Russian. Pulling a can of fish-of-suspicious-provenance out of the refrigerator: 'Well, I think I'll have some pashtet [the fish in question], and the peas. And I'll fry myself an egg, and that will be a very good breakfast.'

'Peas? For breakfast?' I asked. I think I was speaking Ukrainian, but I'm not sure. At any rate, he pointedly switched to English, leaning heavily on the English-style R and looking me dead in the eye as he said, '[Mister Eritain]—here in Ukraine, we don't have ... "foods that you can only eat for breakfast".'


But then again, I've also had Chinese in Taiwan tell me there's no particular assignment of foods to meals over there, and it isn't true. Congee (watery rice) and fluffy steamed buns are only really morning foods, unless you're sick, and I don't recall seeing fruit at breakfast spreads as at other meals.
posted by eritain at 2:06 PM on August 24, 2007

According to an episode of Good Eats, popcorn and milk was eaten for breakfast as health-food in the late 1800's, and corn flakes were invented because Mr. Kellogg didn't think anybody would buy a plain old box of popped corn. I couldn't find a reference for this, though.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:49 PM on August 24, 2007

From what I understand breakfast foods - which are typically carbohydrate heavy - are ideal first thing in the morning because your brain operates on carbs and by breakfast it's been starved of them for (usually) 8 hours.

The trouble these days is that the old-fashioned nutritious carby breakfasts like real muesli and rolled oats have been replaced with quick, easy and yummier alternatives (Weetbix, pop tarts, fruitloops, etc). These cereals usually have a high GI which means you're hungry again an hour after eating breakfast.

I've been seeing a dietician for a few months as part of a weight loss plan and one of the best changes I've made has been to eat porridge for breakfast (Uncle Toby's Quick Oats or Quakers Oats) with a bit of milk and honey. It only takes me a few extra minutes to make each day and it keeps me full for a few hours, plus it's very low-fat.

Regarding the eating of breakfast foods at breakfast only and not during the rest of the day, this is because breakfast is usually (as previously mentioned) mostly carbohydrates and you need to combine carbs and protein during the day to have energy and stay full. For example - if you eat a big bowl of pasta or rice (carbs) for lunch you will feel sleepy in the afternoon and be hungrier sooner, whereas if you eat pasta with beef and vegetables you will have more energy, be less sleepy, and stay full for longer. Ideally every meal, except for breakfast, should combine carbs and protien, with ideally as many vegetables as you can eat.

I hope that helps :)
posted by katala at 7:52 PM on August 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Eggs are what you gather in the morning. Toast sops up runny eggs. Coffee wakes you up. All are hot, simple, and fast concoctions, which is very important when you are cold and sleepy and in a hurry to get out the door. Eggs, toast, coffee. Anything else that can be easily added to the frying pan or toaster would naturally evolve as part of a typical breakfast for adults.

Milk (cows must be milked in the morning) and cereal (mush, oatmeal, etc.) are simple things to feed gummy little babies in the morning, the cereal probably with lots of sugar or honey to make the little bastards eat it. This became the modern sweet packaged cereal -- candy disguised (with various vitamin claims and piggybacking on the nutritional value of milk) as an actual meal, and that's what you give kids when you want them to get the hell out of bed and eat something in two minutes before going to school. Wake up, you little fuckers. I have candy. No? But it's got a picture of some stupid cartoon character on the box! And a crappy toy inside!
posted by pracowity at 10:30 PM on August 24, 2007

Actually, here in Israel, kids' breakfast and dinner are very similar affair. Cheese, veggies, bread, maybe eggs., maybe pastrami. Some even eat cereal at night.
Once we grow older both lunch and dinner become "hot" meals, eating lunch on the go and then something cooked at home.
And we're pretty western.

i was in Singapore and they eat boiling hot black pepper crab soup for breakfast, in 27 degrees Celsius and 90% humidity. For lunch and dinner too.
posted by ye#ara at 1:25 AM on August 25, 2007

Don't forget the "Continental breakfast". Here in Austria, the typical breakfast consists of coffee, Semmel (rolls), various cold cuts, cheese and butter. Maybe some joghurt and muesli.

On the other hand, they serve something similar to shredded pancakes with powdered sugar, raisins and fruit compote (aka kaiserschmarrn , at lunch or supper (something that drives my brother batty).
posted by syzygy at 6:24 PM on August 25, 2007

Eritain, if you still speak to your Ukrainian roommate, ask him about zapekanka and syrniki. Almost no one makes these for breakfast any more because of the time involved, but you might bring on a wave of sweet nostalgia.

I think many of our breakfast foods are born out of the need to reuse leftovers before they go bad, like Italian spaghetti fritattas or French toast. When I was a kid, we'd ask for mashed potatoes at dinner so our grandmother would make potato pancakes in the morning. Leaving milk out on the table was a good strategy too--that way she'd make some oladiya, which are fluffier when made with sour milk.
posted by whimwit at 7:47 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

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