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Definition: lunch 1 from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1812) 1 : a usu. light meal; esp : one taken in the middle of the day 2 : the food prepared for a lunch — out to lunch slang : out of touch with reality

Summary Article: LUNCH
from Food and Drink in American History: A "Full Course" Encyclopedia

In the 18th century, lunch was a small simple meal consumed any time during the day. At the time the large meal of the day was dinner, which was consumed at midday. When Americans began to urbanize and industrialize, the time that Americans had for eating during the workday was shortened, and workers were unable to go home for a large meal at midday. For many workers the time expended eating during the day was unpaid time, so they took a quick bite while working or a short 15-minute break to eat. Workers brought their own food to consume, frequently on the job. Easy-to-eat low-cost food, such as sandwiches and soups, became common, and the name for the meal became luncheon, which was shortened to lunch.

As labor organized, the midday lunch break was institutionalized to an hour between noon and 2:00 p.m. New ways of feeding workers, such as cafeterias, Automats, diners, tearooms, lunchrooms, luncheonettes, lunch counters in large retail stores, and later fast-food chains, emerged in the late 19th century. Lunch became a small, light, and frequently rushed meal—often something brought from home in a tin pail, a metal lunch box, or a brown bag or a quick bite in a workplace cafeteria. Sandwiches, soups, salads, coffee, tea, soda, and desserts (such as pies, cakes, and ice cream) became common lunch foods.

Lunchroom in Columbus, Ohio, 1938. (Library of Congress)

Not everyone had limited time at lunch. Well-to-do women and men joined private clubs that served lunch—and the club sandwich was one of the resulting food invented in these establishments. And not everyone looked at lunch as a small hasty meal. Businessmen took clients to lunch, which now became a place to do business. This led to the emergence of the three-martini lunch and the power lunch during which business was conducted in the late 20th century.

At the other end of the economic spectrum were the less affluent, who bought their midday meals from street vendors. During the Great Depression, soup kitchens served millions of lunches to Americans who were out of work.

Traditionally, students in schools brought their lunch from home in brown bags; by the mid-20th century, lunch boxes for children—small commercial metal containers often with thermoses—began to be manufactured with various themes illustrated on the outside, including cartoon characters and popular children's television series characters. Beginning in the early 20th century, low-cost cafeteria food became available in many schools. For those students who were unable to afford to bring or pay for food, school lunches began to be served to children beginning in the early 20th century. These programs would later merge into federally funded school lunch programs later in the century.

See also Automats; Cafeterias; Diners; Meal Patterns; Sandwiches; School Food

  • Levine, Susan. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton University Press Princeton NJ, 2008.
  • Copyright 2013 by Andrew F. Smith

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