Meals and Mealtimes in Britain - What Are They Called?

The Sunday Roast
Elaine Lemm

Tea is a drink, yet it also the evening meal, lunch can be dinner, but dinner is never lunch yet can be supper are just a few examples of why I feel sorry for a visitor to these islands when it comes to trying to work out the meal and mealtimes in Britain and Ireland.

Even those of us born and bred here struggle to understand what they mean.

The names and descriptions vary so much both geographically, culturally and the choice of which word is often considered an indicator of social class.

A Quick Translator of British Meals and Mealtimes.

  • Breakfast – also called brekkie by some but not common. Breakfast is usually the same everywhere though the contents of breakfast will vary hugely. Both Britain and Ireland are famous for their cooked breakfast is known as "Full" or "Cooked" breakfast.
  • Elevenses – is known around the world as the morning coffee or tea break. The term comes from the industrial revolution in Britain which saw the rise of factories and mills throughout Britain which coincided with tea becoming the drink of the workers (formally it had been gin and beer, so perhaps a good move). The Tea Break came into being when the benefits of drinking tea and the revitalizing of the workforce came to be known. Hence, the tea break was born as was the more familiar elevenses.
  • Lunch - this considered a more working-class term. School lunches in the mid 20th century were always called "School Dinners" and it is felt this is where the confusion came from. The traditional Sunday lunch (usually consisting of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Puddings) is also often called Sunday dinner or a Sunday Roast.
  • Afternoon Tea – traditionally eaten around 3 – 4 o clock and though popular since the 18th century, went into decline after the World War II. The popularity for this treat is now back, though more for holidays and weekends than a daily event.
  • Tea – (when meaning dinner and not the drink) is considered a mainly northern working-class term. When used in this context is eaten early evening and will often the main meal of the day on returning home from work.
  • Dinner - is dinner and eaten from early to late evening, used int he same way around the world.
  • Supper – can also be an evening meal but when attached to an invitation changes slightly. An invitation to supper would mean the arrangement is more casual than an invitation to dinner, which is usually more formal. Supper is also considered a hot or cold snack before bedtime but again more a working-class term when the evening meal was served around 5 pm. meaning by bedtime many would be a little peckish.
  • A Take Away - certainly a modern word as it is a meal bought and brought home (to-go, carry-out).