Breakfast: It's What's for Dinner

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Hash browns! And all after 10:30 a.m.

But why is that? Why do Americans, in particular, want the ability to have “the most important meal” of the day whenever they choose? Why have breakfast foods co-opted other feedings of the day, giving us brunch and brinner?

Here’s my colleague Adam today, in an elegy for McDonald’s breakfast hours:

Part of why we now demand breakfast at all hours is because the old strictures of workday and place have been shed. … In demanding eternal breakfast, America is reverting to its adolescence. It wants what it wants and cares not for the rules or the structures that kept us together.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. To understand the development of what we call breakfast, we go to England, circa the late 1700s, relayed by Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History:

By the end of the 18th century, dinner had already been pushed to 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., eventually pushing supper even later in the evening. With the shift of the day’s two meals toward a later time came the need to eat in those hours between waking and lunch—a meal to break the evening’s fast.

Rich people ate meat and eggs, and poor people ate porridge and stale bread. In the U.S., by the early 19th century, Americans were eating two meals a day: a big breakfast around 8 a.m., and dinner in late afternoon. And when people ate was closely tied to their vocation:

The time at which one had one’s breakfast was largely dictated by one’s affluence (or lack thereof): Poor people rose earlier to get straight to their chores and ate an hour or two later, while the wealthier classes slept in and enjoyed a leisurely morning, taking both of their meals later.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when the McMuffin was born, and many Americans are grabbing breakfast on the way to work, which usually isn’t at the crack of dawn. The early to bed, early to rise lifestyle of the agriculturalist doesn’t apply. Many people sleep in—hello, brunch!—and stay up late—hello, diners!

Meat-heavy breakfast sandwiches, at around $3, are not considered a sign of wealth, as they likely would have been decades ago. And surely people should be able to pick one up whenever their schedule allows—this is America, after all!—even if it’s after 10:30 a.m.