For the first 34 years of my life, I always ate three meals a day. I never thought much about it—the routine was satisfying, it fit easily into my life, and eating three meals a day is just what Americans generally do. By the end of last summer, though, those decades of habit had begun to erode. The time-blindness of working from home and having no social plans left me with no real reason to plod over to my refrigerator at any specific hour of the day. To cope, I did what many Americans have done over the past year: I quasi-purposefully fumbled around for a new routine, and eventually I came up with some weird but workable results—and with Big Meal.
Big Meal is exactly what it sounds like: a meal that is large. It’s also untethered from linear time. Big Meal is not breakfast, lunch, or dinner—social constructs that no longer exist as such in my home—although it could theoretically occur at the traditional time for any of them. Big Meal comes when you’re ready to have it, which is a moment that only you can identify. For me, this is typically in the late afternoon, but sometimes it’s at breakfast. Generally, Big Meal happens once a day.
In the dieting (excuse me, biohacking) trend known as intermittent fasting, people compress their calories into a limited window of hours. But that’s not what Big Meal is at all. It’s not a diet. I snack whenever I feel like it—Triscuits with slices of pepper jack, leftover hummus from the Turkish takeout place that sometimes provides Big Meal, a glob of smooth peanut butter on a spoon. The phrase started as a joke about my inability to explain to a friend why I was making risotto in the middle of the afternoon, or why I didn’t have an answer to “What’s for dinner?” at 6 p.m. beyond “Uh, well, I ate a giant burrito at 11 a.m. and grazed all afternoon, so I think I’m done for the day.” Now I simply say, “It’s time for Big Meal,” or “I already had Big Meal.”
This curious change in my own eating was just the beginning. The pandemic has disrupted nearly every part of daily life, but the effects on how people eat have been particularly acute. Dining closures and weekend boredom have pushed a country of reticent cooks to prepare more of its own meals. Delivery-app middlemen have tightened their grip on the takeout market. Supply shortages have made flour, beans, pasta, and yeast hot commodities. Viral recipes have proliferated—can I interest anyone in sourdough, banana bread, shallot pasta, baked feta, or a truly excellent cast-iron-pan pizza?
Even for people who have had a relatively stable existence over the past year, pandemic mealtime changes have been chaotic. Which isn’t to say that they’ve been uniformly negative. Big shifts in daily life have a way of forcing people into new habits—and forcing them to figure out what they actually want to eat.
If you pore over the food-business news from the past year, there’s little question that lots of people have changed their habits in one way or another. For instance, many people are buying more snacks—in January, Frito-Lay said that some of its marquee brands, such as Tostitos and Lay’s, had finished the year with sales increases of roughly 30 to 40 percent. The entire “fruit snack” category has more than doubled its sales, according to one market analysis. Frozen-food sales are up more than 20 percent, and online orders of packaged foods as varied as chewing gum and wine have also seen a marked increase.
But sales numbers and trend reports tell only part of the story. Underneath them are people trying to mold their individual circumstances to survivability, or maybe even pleasure, however they can, and the biggest unifying factor is that “normal” hardly exists anymore. For millions of people who have lost income during the pandemic, just getting groceries is often a hard-fought victory. Among the wealthy, constant Caviar deliveries and access to private, pandemic-safe dining bubbles at fine restaurants have kept things novel. Households in the middle have scrambled to form new, idiosyncratic routines all their own.
Wendy Robinson, a community-college administrator in St. Paul, Minnesota, told me that working from home most of the week has had the opposite effect on her than it did on me: It added more meals to her life. Before the pandemic, “a lot of my eating was really convenience-driven, and I didn’t have a dedicated lunchtime, because I just was so busy,” she said. Food came erratically—from a co-worker’s desk, from the campus cafeteria, from Starbucks, picked up on the way home after a late night at work. Now she eats a real lunch most days, and she cooks more—a hobby she has always enjoyed—because she can do it while she’s on conference calls and during what used to be her commute.
Kids have necessitated their own set of pandemic adaptations. Robinson and her husband, who also works from home most of the time, have two kids who attend school remotely. Despite a rough first few months and plenty of ongoing stresses, Robinson says the at-home life has also given her more opportunity to cook with her kids and teach them the basics. Lately, her 12-year-old son has begun to enthusiastically pitch in during the family’s meals. “He makes a legit great omelet and delicious scrambled eggs, and he makes himself grilled cheese,” Robinson said. “Sometimes, when I am really busy, he will make me lunch now.”
With younger kids, things can be a little trickier. Scott Hines’s sons, 4 and 5, aren’t yet old enough to manage many cooking tasks for themselves, but they are old enough to seek out munchies. “I swear there are days where they’ve eaten snacks and no meals,” Hines, an architect based in Louisville, Kentucky, told me. “The days that they’re doing online learning, it’s impossible to control that, just because they’re bored.” On the upside, Hines, an enthusiastic cook who runs a newsletter for sharing his favorite recipes, said that working from home for part of the week has allowed him to try more types of cooking projects this year. Before, he often relied on foods that could be microwaved or otherwise prepared quickly. Now, he said, “I can make a soup; I can make something that goes in the pressure cooker or sits in the Dutch oven for hours, because I can start it at lunchtime.”
For people without kids, and especially those who live alone, the pandemic’s impact works out a little differently in the kitchen. When it’s just you, there’s no bugging your partner to wash the dishes or trading off cooking duties with a roommate or letting a budding teen chef chop the vegetables. It’s all you, every time you’re hungry. “The amount of effort is immense,” Ashley Cornall, a 30-year-old project manager in San Francisco, told me. “It’s spending my entire life washing dishes, or in my kitchen, prepping something.” Before the pandemic, many of Cornall’s meals were social occasions, or something quick picked up from the zillions of restaurants built to feed the Bay Area’s office workers in their offices. She still orders takeout occasionally, but often feels bad about asking a delivery person to ferry food to her. Because constant Zoom meetings during the day make it hard to slip out to pick something up, she tends to find herself cobbling together a meal out of snacks.
Even so, Cornall told me she has grown to enjoy cooking when she does have the time for it. “There is something kind of nice about putting on music and cooking a meal in the evening and having half a glass of wine, taking a moment to enjoy it,” she said. Having more control over what’s in her food has also helped her get closer to a longtime goal of switching to vegetarianism; she’s not totally there yet, but she eats a lot less meat than she used to.
Splintering the three-meals-a-day norm might at first feel unnatural, but in the long arc of human history, that eating schedule is both extremely recent and born almost entirely of social convenience. According to Amy Bentley, a food historian at NYU, eating three meals a day is not something we do because of nutritional science or a natural human inclination. Instead, it’s largely a consequence of industrialization, which formalized the workday and drew much of the population away from home on a regular basis. Preindustrial America was more rural and agrarian, and people worked during daylight hours, pausing midmorning and later in the afternoon. “It was more like a two-meal kind of schedule that was based on outdoor physical labor and farm labor, and those meals tended to be quite big,” Bentley told me.
Over time, more and more Americans were drawn into daily life outside the home—more kids were sent to school, and housewives and domestic workers, whose presence was once common in middle-class American homes, joined the formal labor market. Industrialized food processing began to provide an array of products marketed as quick-and-easy breakfast foods—products that had never previously existed but whose ubiquity accelerated after World War II. Industrialized breakfasts such as cornflakes and instant oatmeal make for meals that are generally small and nutritionally hollow, which meant that people then needed to eat again during the day before commuting home for a later dinner, which was—and often still is—important for its role in family social life.
You can probably see the fault lines already. Of course vanishing commutes, remote schooling, and the flexibility to make a sandwich during a conference call would change how people eat. The three-meal-a-day axiom was created to bend human life around the necessity of leaving the home to work elsewhere for the whole day, and now people are bending once again, around a whole new set of challenges. Our old eating schedules are no more natural than sitting in a cubicle for 10 hours a day.
But food is a fraught emotional topic, and people often worry that changes in their behavior—even those that feel natural—are somehow unhealthy. Rachel Larkey, a registered dietitian in Yonkers, New York, who specializes in treating eating disorders among her mostly low-income clients, has heard this worry frequently over the past year. “Folks are feeling like their routines are kind of nebulous now, and they don’t have a lot of structure in their day,” she told me. “If we have a routine, our body starts to say, Okay, it’s noon; it’s my lunchtime. I’m hungry now.” Without that expectation, people notice their hunger at hours of the day that aren’t necessarily mealtimes, or find themselves without much of an appetite when they think they’re supposed to eat.
These challenges hit everybody differently. Adapting to your own shifting needs is easier if you have money to buy kitchen equipment and food, or if eating isn’t a stressful, emotional minefield for you. But Larkey said that much of the scaremongering about the “quarantine 15” is silly. People naturally gain and lose weight as the conditions of their life change, and extreme reactions to gaining a few pounds right now can compound the harm of the pandemic’s other stresses on physical and mental health. What matters, Larkey told me, is whether the changes in your eating habits make you feel good and healthy—whether they fit your current life and your needs better than what you were doing before.
New or worsening food compulsions, such as eating far more or far less than you used to, are cause for alarm. But what’s not cause for alarm, Larkey said, is adjusted eating patterns or mealtimes that are more useful or satisfying in the weird, stressful conditions people are now living in. “We’re really not taught that we can trust our body’s cues,” she told me. “It can feel so destabilizing to have to think about them for maybe the first time ever.”
In some of the new routines created to make the past year a little less onerous, it’s not hard to see how life after the pandemic might be made a little more flexible—more humane—for tasks as essential as cooking and eating. For now, though, go ahead and do whatever feels right. There’s no reason to keep choking down your morning Greek yogurt if you’re not hungry until lunch, or to force yourself to cook when you’re bone tired and would be just as happy with cheese and crackers. You might not make it all the way to Big Meal, but you don’t have to be stuck at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.