Breakfast in America

What It Is and What It Means

It's where we start. Whatever the rest of our eating day might bring, we begin with breakfast; it's how we break our nightlong fast. For some that means a cup or three of coffee or maybe just a glass of lemon water or a Diet Pepsi. For others, it's cereal and milk, oatmeal, a bagel with cream cheese, a Pop-Tart, an Egg McMuffin, bacon and eggs with hash browns and toast, a couple of slices of cold pizza from last night; or it's glutinous rice porridge, miso soup with rice and grilled salmon, a mini-baguette with butter and jam, yogurt with tomatoes and cucumbers, tortilla strips in spicy green sauce

Every culture, every corner of America (and the world), every household, every individual defines breakfast differently. It can be whatever we want it to be. It can make a statement about our religious or philosophical beliefs (vegan bacon, anyone?) or our commitment to our health and/or to the environment. It can be a leisurely indulgence or an essential pit stop to fuel us for the day. It can try its best to cure our hangover.

The term breakfast doesn't appear in English until the mid-fifteenth century. Before that, the day's first meal, at least in Britain, was called morgenmete (literally “morning food”), and would have involved bread cooked on a griddle (or oatcakes or porridge in Scotland and northern England), cold meat of some kind, and ale (which was safer to drink than water).

Elsewhere around the world, breakfast took on various shapes, suited to local cuisines and local sleep and work habits. How did Americans develop their specific breakfast preferences? What are the sociological implications of what we eat in the a.m.? For that matter, why is breakfast (or what we have traditionally considered breakfast) now often eaten at any time of day? These are some of the questions The Daily Meal editorial staff considers in this, our fifth Special Report — our collections of stories and slideshows on important topics. Previous installments have dealt with the controversial issue of GMOs, the various ways in which food can harm as well as nourish us (Is Our Food Killing Us?), water (The Most Important Thing in the World), and the relationship of food to long life (“The Quest for Longevity”).

As usual in these Special Reports, we approach our subject from various directions. Dan Myers' timeline tracks the history of Breakfast Through the Years, while Jeremy Rose asks Why Do We Eat What We Eat for Breakfast? Alyssa Haak reaches out to culinary personalities to discover What Chefs Eat for Breakfast (and When They Eat It). Holly Van Hare investigates nutritional commonplaces in Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day? Focusing on the specifics, Daily Meal Council member Kelly Alexander pitches in with How the Bagel Conquered American Breakfast; Shannon Darnall tells the story of The Smoothie Revolution: How a Health Food Curiosity Took Over the Breakfast Table; Taylor Rock suggests Why the World Is Obsessed with Starbucks; and I ask What Is Greek Yogurt and Why Is Everybody Eating It for Breakfast? Breakfast is so popular that it is no longer restricted to the morning hours, as Carolyn Menyes points out in Why Breakfast Took Over the Whole Darned Day. Susan Houriet takes the idea a step further with I Ate Breakfast Every Meal for a Week and This Is What Happened. Sometimes, of course, what we're eating is less important than what others aren't eating and why they're not, as Daisy Nichols discusses in The Shame of School Breakfast — wake-up food for thought.

— Colman Andrews, Editorial Director


Breakfast Through the Years Timeline