Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner || Home Comforts



Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

What a real meal is … What protein and starch foods are … Three real meals are better than numerous minimeals or a life of snacking … Meals of the day … What breakfast is for and what to make … What lunch (or supper) is for and what to make … What dinner is for and what to make … Guidelines on how to put dinner together

This chapter and the next describe some of the traditions and conventions that define what we think a meal should be like, what breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all about, and the basics of serving appealing meals in the home—familiar customs that we take entirely for granted. Given that these customs are being challenged by strong social trends, however, it is worth pausing to reflect on what they are and how they serve us.

What Is a Real Meal?

The most basic convention governing food is the one that calls for us to eat meals, and having a meal is not the same thing as simply eating something. Meals have contents loosely prescribed by our customs, they occur at customary times of day, and they are served in customary ways. Whether or not people choose to eat real meals, they know one when they see one. Walk into almost any home or restaurant in this or any other Western country and you will observe that, with surprisingly few exceptions, what people consider a real meal is a triad comprising—at a minimum—one “meat” or other protein food, one starchy food, and one or more fruits or vegetables, depending on which meal it is. Cereal with skim milk and fruit or juice is a real breakfast; coffee and toast is borderline. A cheese sandwich and an apple is lunch; crackers and cheese is just a snack. Duck confit with polenta, greens, and olives is a delicious dinner; spaghetti with tomato sauce is just a course. There are gray and overlapping areas that menu planners puzzle over, but the basic idea, which my mother taught me and hers taught her, is that you need these three different kinds of food—at least—to make a satisfying, appetizing, healthy meal.

Of course, this pattern is to be used flexibly, adjusted to health, necessity, whim, fashion, and whatever else the particular moment or meal dictates. The triad is primarily a social or traditional idea, secondarily a nutritional one. What is experienced as a “real meal,” and thus satisfies, has as much to do with expectation and experience as with appetite and nutrition, and may or may not be nutritionally sound.1 But the triad is quite consistent with the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid or any other sensible nutritional guidelines you may follow, including vegetarian ones, and should be used along with these. It even incorporates some basic nutritional sense regarding “macronutrients”—substances necessary for health in relatively large quantities, such as protein, carbohydrates, and fats or oils—and fiber. (Vitamins, minerals, and other substances necessary in tiny quantities for health are called “micronutrients.”) Although each member of the triad usually supplies more than one macronutrient and many micronutrients as well, a foodstuff is categorized as a protein or starch for meal-planning purposes only if it contains large quantities of the substance.

Besides its many crucial biochemical functions, the meat or other protein sustains satiety and prevents you from “crashing” from hunger too soon after a meal. The “starchy” food contains carbohydrates, which are necessary to satisfy your appetite quickly (so that you do not continue to feel hungry and overeat) and to give you energy. If you eat meals that are too high in protein or too low in carbohydrates, you may begin to feel tired, irritable, and hungry. The fruits and vegetables supply fiber and micronutrients, along with some protein and carbohydrates. Fats and oils, which serve a large variety of functions in your body (as, indeed, do all the necessary nutrients), are likely to come from any members of the triad, depending upon manner of preparation.

Proteins, Starches, and Fruits and Vegetables

Protein foods, those that include large amounts of protein, consist of flesh and other foods obtained from animals: beef, pork, lamb, mutton, sausage, game, poultry, fish, shellfish; eggs; milk and many milk products such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and other cheeses. (See also the listing for beans, below.)

Starchy foods, those that contain large amounts of carbohydrates, are usually made either of grains or of root vegetables and their products: wheat, barley, oats, corn, rye, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, triticale, pasta, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams, breakfast cereals, polenta and mush, grits, breads, pancakes and waffles, kasha, couscous. (Potatoes are vegetables but are always considered a starch dish when planning menus.)

Fruits include: apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, berries of all sorts, melons of all sorts, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, all other types of citrus fruit, kiwifruit, starfruit, bananas, coconuts, pineapples.

Vegetables include: green beans, peas, corn, celery, carrots, turnips, parsnips, asparagus, red peppers, green peppers, beets, lettuces of all types, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, all similar greens, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, pumpkin, cucumbers, onions, scallions, shallots, garlic, leeks, black-eyed peas, beans (kidney, black, northern, garbanzo, pinto, all other beans), tomatoes.

Beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts and their products (such as nut butters, tofu, and soy milk) are often used as meat substitutes because they contain substantial amounts of protein—much more than most other vegetables.

Should Real Meals Be Abolished?

The organization of life around a pattern of three meals is, among Western nations, universal and long-standing. The Celts, the Renaissance Florentines, and the Pilgrims in colonial America all ate three meals a day, if they could get them. But for some years now, the idea has grown among some diet enthusiasts and nutritionists that it would be better for our health to eat five or more small, equal meals each day—to “graze”—and to throw out as outdated the idea of a main meal, especially one eaten in the evening. Others take a more moderate position, asserting merely that “grazing” can be done healthily if you find that your harried lifestyle leaves you too busy to sit down for regular meals. Both views offer comfort to the growing number of people who eat out more than they eat in or who for a variety of reasons find themselves missing meals and nibbling throughout the day. But most experts advise us to continue with our sensible traditional pattern of three meals—plus a snack, if needed.

Our meal patterns are significant customs that serve social and psychological purposes almost as important as their biological ones. To abolish meals would amount to rewriting the whole blueprint of private life in favor of something uprooted and isolating. What kind of expert is qualified to tell us to do this? Nutritionists and dietitians understand digestion and food chemistry, but when they turn from narrowly defined nutritional and health issues and address our social habits, they seem unaware that they are talking about historical artifacts with complicated psychological and cultural underpinnings—matters in which they have no expertise.

For a variety of compelling reasons, we continue to need real meals, especially a main meal. Frequent minimeals do not afford the heightened pleasures that food must provide to create a sufficiently important occasion for people to gather for the restorative conviviality of a meal. Practically speaking, in fact, you can accommodate such an experience only once a day, which is why you need a main meal. Because grazing is functional, solitary eating, rather than allowing for the relaxation and dignified enjoyments of dining, it offers little pleasure and does not restore you, physically or emotionally, the way real meals do. It is hard to think of five interesting minimeals seven days a week, yet such frequent eating keeps your mind on food all the time: what to have for the next meal, how to get it, how to store it, how to prepare it. The result, in my observation, is that people begin to overeat or undereat. America, the land of nibblers and grazers, of eating on the run on street corners, in cars, and at desks, is also the land of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and obesity. In countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, where mealtimes are respected, there are fewer weight problems, heart problems, and other health problems associated with poor diet than we have.

Mealtime conventions both restrain and encourage eating by prescribing courses and portion sizes and by limiting the occasions during the day when you are called on to eat or think of food. Thus they make it more unlikely that people will eat either too little or too much. Conventional meals embody traditions designed to make you feel like a person, not a machine that needs fueling. The protection and perpetuation of these important and useful conventions is a major responsibility—and right—of the home.

If a lifestyle has been imposed on you that leaves you without enough time to eat real meals, I think you have a right to resent it and should insist on changing it. Everyone is entitled to the time and resources for a good dinner—and breakfast and lunch—every day, and that includes time to cook in one’s own home and enjoy the food and the companionship of family and friends. These things are not luxuries but necessities.

The Meals of the Day

Each of the three daily meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with tea or a snack—has a definite function and is associated with characteristic or traditional dishes. Part of housekeeping is understanding what purpose each meal serves and how to meet it.

There is a present-day trend toward defying old-fashioned ideas of which dishes are appropriate for each of the meals of the day. Some nutritionists urge people to try soup or pizza or spaghetti for breakfast in hopes that this will get breakfast skippers to have a morning meal. Others serve traditional breakfast foods for dinner. There is nothing wrong with eating any foods that please you at any time of the day; the most important thing is to enjoy your meals and eat well. But you might weigh in the balance that traditional ideas of the appropriate dishes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner can serve to increase our feeling of variety in the menu overall. If you eat the same kinds of foods at all three meals, you cannot readily use the associations of a dish with one meal or another to set the character of a meal. Likewise, the use of certain foods and modes of preparation at different times of day often reflects practical matters of time, difficulty, appetite, and mood. So in principle anything goes, but if you are alert to all the factors that affect good menu choices you may find that in one respect or another you prefer traditional thinking about menus. This does not mean that you cannot be innovative or creative about menus. It only sets the parameters within which you will strive for something new and different.

About Eating Breakfast

What Breakfast Is For. Breakfast supplies food energy and nutrients to your body after its long overnight fast. Strong evidence shows that those who skip breakfast—especially children—perform poorly at school and work compared with those who eat breakfast. Breakfasting also serves important emotional functions. In an age when the home sends its residents out early in the morning for most of the productive day, eating breakfast is more important than it ever was. If you are going to spend nine or ten or more hours without intimacy, with your private and personal goals and interests suspended for the benefit of your work, you need to ensure that you first gather yourself emotionally and refuel yourself physically. Eating a meal, even a small one, helps you do both things.

Breakfast also helps get you oriented in the morning; it pulls you back from dreamland and into reality. Sleeping is a psychological regression, a withdrawal from the world back to a primitive part of your own mind. When you first wake up you have not entirely returned from that archaic place within you. Just as the concerns of your job recede when you get home at night, so the current concerns even of home and private life recede when you sleep and only gradually reassert themselves with full force upon your awakening. If the reconnecting process does not happen before you leave home, you tend to feel raw and off-balance for half the day.

This is why breakfast time is planning time in every household. The food helps sharpen your mind, and you begin thinking through your day, learning everyone’s plans and setting your own. Children, who when they wake up in the morning have not interacted with their parents for eight to twelve hours, need to share breakfast with them to help keep alive the children’s sense of parental affection and protection when they are apart during the day. This is as true for teenagers who would never admit it as for babies who are incapable of expressing the thought.

What to Make. The breakfast triad customarily consists of a grain food (starch), protein food, and fruit: toast, eggs, and juice; cereal with skim milk or yogurt and fruit; a bagel with lox or cream cheese and a slice of tomato; waffles with blueberries and sausages—plus, of course, a warm, stimulating, and comforting beverage such as coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.

Most people prefer a light breakfast. Not only do they want to face minimal cooking when they first awaken, but they have a modest appetite at that time of day. The rural tradition of a hearty breakfast persists in some places, particularly among farmers; more often such meals are not consumed except at “brunch” or on weekends, holidays, and vacations, when mornings are more leisurely. But a light breakfast still requires some protein; the milk, egg, yogurt, meat, or fish is what gives breakfast its staying power. The “continental” breakfast of rolls or toast and coffee is hard to defend, as it is short on practically everything. (It is greatly improved by a piece of fruit or juice and some skim milk or cottage cheese. The protein allowance for breakfast can be quite small.)

The breakfast appetite is not only modest but conservative. Many people skip breakfast entirely because their morning appetite is so fussy, or they want to eat the same thing every morning and complain about changes. This is the opposite of our attitudes at other meals, when we insist on novelty and lose our appetites if we are given the same thing two or three times in a row. This explains why nutritionists’ efforts to persuade people to eat breakfast by assuring them that pizza and soup are fine breakfast foods are almost certainly doomed to failure. Someone who insists on a particular brand of raisin bran or a corn muffin for breakfast every day has not been hoodwinked into thinking that pizza is improper; he simply shudders at the thought of pizza first thing in the morning.

The conservatism of the morning appetite is a psychological phenomenon. When we are still making the slow journey back to full-fledged rationality (after our mental retreat during sleep and dreams), most people tend to want sweet, bland, gentle, easy-to-eat, comforting foods—in other words, childish ones. Throughout the Western world, we find that spicy-hot, acidic, or strong-textured foods that take vigorous chewing or cutting with a knife are usually avoided for breakfast at home, as are all the vegetables that children everywhere resist eating. Most of us prefer cereals and eggs, sausages (a bit spicy, but, unlike roasts, already ground up before we eat them), lox, whitefish, or other fish (more tender than a chop), breads, stewed fruits or fruit juices (no chewing or crunching), sweet jams, syrups, preserves, and so forth. However, if you have been up for a while and have gone out into the world—as is usually the case when you eat breakfast at a restaurant or have brunch instead of breakfast—you are ready to be a bit more adventurous: let them bring on the huevos rancheros with hot chili peppers. Of course, there are lucky people who wake up with fully matured appetites. They need no help figuring out something good for breakfast, but they may need to be more tolerant of others who are less fortunate.

For such reasons as these, habitual foods are useful to the home breakfast. Familiar foods at breakfast help people conquer tricky appetites and attitudes so that their inner children can be wheedled into eating something rather than nothing for breakfast. If you want to expand your breakfast menu, try including new or unusual fruits, grains, and cereals, especially whole-grain and higher-protein varieties. You might also try to include more lean proteins, such as vegetarian or soy-based sausages, tofu, and especially fish, which has always belonged on the breakfast table and has the further advantage of being quick to cook.

About Lunch (or Supper)

What Lunch Is For. Lunch has been called a “respite” from the day’s toils, a break of sorts. But besides providing a short rest period, lunch exists to help you make the stretch to dinner. Employers and schools in this country are unwilling to give us time to let it be more, and its very origins work against its assuming any more meaningful character.

A couple of centuries ago everyone followed the custom of eating dinner at midday and supper in the evening. But just as dinner had already migrated from late morning to midday, so it continued to migrate—to three, then four, then five P.M., until, during the late nineteenth century in cities and suburbs, the dinner hour settled itself at about seven or eight P.M., and there it has remained in most Western countries. In rural areas, the custom of midday dinner survived much longer and still exists here and there on farms, and in our lingering habit of serving holiday feasts as early as one or two P.M. In Italy and Spain, and to some extent France, where people’s domestic habits are still powerful enough to force businesses to accommodate them, the most important meal for many people may still come at midday.

When dinner got to be as late as two or three P.M., people began to need a snack in the late morning or at noon. And when dinner moved on to four or five P.M., they began to need a small meal at midday, and “lunch” was invented. Lunch was, therefore, make-shift from the start. It borrowed foods from breakfast and dinner, relying on remade and leftover foods, and it had no quarrel with cold or room-temperature foods. Lunch was supposed to be light and not demanding, either to cook or to eat. The lunchers want to save their time and their stomachs, and the cooks their energies, for the “real meal,” dinner. Moreover, when lunch first came into vogue, it tended to be a ladies’ meal (the gentlemen being tough enough to make it to dinner) and tended to stress light, delicate, and “feminine” foods. Lunch today bears marks of all these aspects of its history.

Most people eat lunch away from home, in which case lunch eating on weekdays affects home cooking only insofar as we try to offer different foods or to adjust the nutritional makeup of our other meals accordingly. But on weekends and vacations most people serve lunch in the home. People who work at home or rear children at home, or are retired, all routinely prepare lunches. Those who can unite the entire family at midday for a sufficient time may decide to aim for a midday dinner.

Usually at lunch you want light food, a minimum of cooking, and a meal that will not steal dinner’s thunder. Lunch, therefore, is still light, quicker, less often hot, less often newly cooked, more often consisting of recooked or remade foods. But if you actually have a midday dinner, your evening supper will be the light meal of quick, cold recooked or remade foods.

What to Make. A satisfying lunch includes at least one protein food, one starchy food, such as a grain or root vegetable, and one vegetable. (Fruit is an excellent lunchtime dessert.) Sometimes it borrows the protein idea from breakfast. Omelettes, frittatas, and quiches with vegetables added are popular lunch dishes, for example, but fried, scrambled, or soft-boiled eggs are not usually served for lunch, except as complements to a hash or in some similar role. We often borrow the actual food for lunch from last night’s dinner, too. We sometimes make the meal into lunch (or supper) rather than dinner by omitting any course before the main one and by serving the three components in one dish. Hearty soups, stews, chili, and “salads” of meats, fish, and other substantial ingredients have thus become lunchtime staples. Ordinary lunch menus include soup and salad with bread, a substantial egg dish with a salad of fresh vegetables, and one-dish meals such as shepherd’s pie, beans and rice, or any of the many dishes of pasta plus a protein and vegetable. But the most important item on the American lunch menu continues to be the sandwich, a versatile, healthful invention for enjoying any protein food whatever—cold meat, poultry, egg, fish, cheese, nuts, beans—with a minimum of fuss, usually no cooking, and no need for utensils. A sandwich is protein plus grain, and if you add enough lettuce and tomatoes or other vegetables it turns into a meal. Even a burger-and-fries lunch is finger food in most homes and restaurants, although etiquette books may insist you use a fork for the fries.

About Dinner

What Dinner Is For. Breakfast prepares; dinner restores. Just as the purpose of breakfast is to send you out to your school or work fortified in mind and body, the purpose of dinner is to reclaim you for private life, pleasure, intimacy. Dinner is the most substantial meal of the day and the central daily event in the life of the home. It is the longest, largest, most elaborate meal, and it serves a variety of functions. Nutritionally, emotionally, and socially, dinner carries more of the burden than other meals of providing the benefits that derive from eating meals cooked at home.

We eat dinner in the evening—at least on weekdays—so that we can share the meal with others at a time when the day’s work is behind us. This gives us peace of mind and the freedom to turn our attention to one another and to enjoy ourselves. A properly set table is desirable at all meals but is most important at dinner, the most formal meal. Dinner is usually composed almost entirely of freshly cooked warm dishes, unlike lunch and breakfast, which often feature uncooked or pre-cooked foods that are eaten without utensils.

What to Make. Relatively informal dinners at home are typically served in two or three courses, a main course and a course preceding and/or following it. The courses that might precede the main course include appetizers, soup, pasta, or salad. Those that might follow are salad and dessert, and salad might also be served at the same time as the main meal. The main course includes the principal protein in the meal—the fish, fowl, meat, cheese, eggs, or beans—plus one or more vegetables. An important source of variety in home meals is the option of serving different sets of courses at different dinners: soup, main course, dessert on Monday; main course, salad, dessert on Tuesday; hors d’oeuvres, main course, salad on Wednesday, and so forth. More formal dinners, of course, would include all the courses in their traditional order—hors d’oeuvres, soup, main course, salad, dessert. Very formal dinners include even more.

All three elements of a good dinner can be supplied either in the main course or among the courses. For example, you could serve a small plate of pasta for an appetizer and follow with fish and vegetables (grain/starch, protein, and vegetable), or you might begin with a salad and follow with a dish that contains chicken and potatoes (vegetable, protein, and root vegetable/starch); or you could serve a one-dish meal that includes all three elements, such as beans and rice with salsa. I am not a fan of the one-dish dinner, however, even though magazines for nearly a hundred years have portrayed it as the solution to the busy woman’s problems. It is often not much quicker to make or clean up after, and almost always gets eaten too quickly. Although some people enjoy main-dish salads for dinner, I generally tend to feel about them as I do about most one-dish meals, or to think of them as more like lunch—except in a heat wave, when they may taste refreshing.

Meals more slowly paced than one-dish meals tend to be, in my experience, better for your mood, your digestion, and your weight. When you begin your meal with foods such as soup or salad or light appetizers made of vegetables or fruits, which include plenty of water or fiber, your body gets more time to respond to your intake; you take the edge off your appetite with less calorically dense foods. When the meal is over, you feel satisfied and contented, and the diners have had a real chance to respond to one another.

Sandwiches are generally not considered dinner food because they are eaten with the fingers, are usually not cooked or warm, and are “casual.” Of course, this is a convention, but it is a convention worth respecting often. The preference for more formality at dinner serves important purposes, and it is not in anyone’s interest to do away with it. But it is in everyone’s interest to do away entirely with feeling ashamed of how or what one cooks. If you cannot avoid having only sandwiches one day, the rational response is to feel slightly sorry for yourself, not to blame yourself.


Make sure that appetizers are light and small. If weight control is an issue, choose those that include plenty of fiber and water: soups, especially clear soups, vegetables, fruits, stuffed celery, and cut vegetables with low-fat dips.

If you are having guests, an appetizer that repeats the basic triad with miniature portions is a good way to keep the balance of the meal—for example, one or two meat or cheese-filled ravioli with a slice of grilled tomato or other vegetables.

Consider the additive effect of all the courses when deciding whether the meal is too heavy or too light for the people, the weather, or the season. If you are beginning with pasta, for example, do not serve polenta with the fish course. The two grain/starch dishes would be experienced as too heavy.

Do not serve in the same course two substantial starchy foods, such as rice and pasta, or potatoes and couscous or kasha. You may have two in one meal, if one is small enough to be merely a grace note. For example, if rice makes a modest appearance in your soup, that needn’t stop you from serving a grain or potato in another course.

Consider the ingredients of each course in deciding whether the meal has a good nutritional (and aesthetic) balance. If you are beginning with a hearty vegetable soup, go light on vegetables with the main course. If you are beginning with a clear soup with a little parsley floating in it, you need to reinforce the vegetables by means of the salad or whatever you serve with the protein.

Cold or room-temperature pasta dishes are generally more appropriate for lunch than for dinner, but they may be used as appetizers at dinner.

You can treat beans as either a vegetable or a protein, but if you are using them as a vegetable try not to make them too prominent in quantity or spiciness.

If you are going to serve two proteins, one should have a minor presence and the other a major presence. Thus, if you are going to serve both fish and meat, serve them in different courses; you might begin with a fish appetizer or a fish soup, and follow with meat in the main course. Truly formal dinners have separate substantial fish courses, but for the modern stomach this constitutes a mighty feast indeed. The most common exceptions to the rule against two proteins for ordinary family dinners are the hunter’s dishes that combine meat and poultry and fish soups or stews that contain two or more types of fish or shellfish—mussels, shrimp, lobster. Such dishes are considered hearty by most people nowadays, so if you serve one, choose lighter components for your other courses.

Do not serve the same ingredient in more than one course; avoid, for example, a soup with green beans and green beans again as a side dish.

Do not serve too many foods of the same taste character together. If you have a tomato-based soup in a first course, do not follow with a marinara sauce.

Opposites often go nicely together: acid/sweet, spicy/bland, hot/cold, crunchy/soft. If you are serving one spicy dish, say a curry, balance it with a cool and mild one such as yogurt.

Avoid serving two very strong-tasting dishes at the same meal.

Do not serve more than one highly salted food per meal.

Do not serve different foods of the same color together; for example, don’t serve green vegetables with green noodles and pesto sauce.

In hot weather, lighter fare is more appetizing: more fruits and vegetables, fewer roasts, hearty soups, and meat stews. In cool weather, the reverse is true.



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