How did one eat in the past?

Let’s start our new articles by taking a look into the history of nutrition... how did one eat in the past?

There have been enormous changes over the centuries, not only with regard to what was eaten, but how it was eaten too. 

In our previous articles we covered breakfast and snack options, now we want to introduce the mid-day meal, which is usually consumed between 12.00 and 2 p.m. 

In Italian it is called pranzo, or second breakfast, but abroad it’s a different story.

The name and time change greatly, depending on a country’s lifestyle and culture, and in English the name itself can cause quite a bit of confusion.

As we know, breakfast is the morning meal that breaks the overnight fast, but lunch can be a mid-day light and informal meal; afternoon tea is usually tea and biscuits between 4 and 5 p.m.; dinner can be a larger and more formal end-of-day meal, in some countries followed by supper, a small informal meal eaten before going to bed. 

How did one eat in the past?

In the past, for the British working class families, dinner was traditionally the mid-day meal, and in the evening they ate a light meal called tea, which for the Americans is simply a hot beverage, but is a tradition still greatly used today in Britain. 

In American English, lunch is the mid-day meal, however large it may be, while dinner or supper is the evening meal.

If we consider farm life, breakfast was at dawn, lunch was a small meal eaten around 10.30 a.m., dinner was a hot meal eaten around 4 p.m., and supper was the larger hot meal eaten after the long day’s work after dark.  So we will simply refer to mid-day meal for our article.

In Italy it has always been the most important meal of the day, with many courses that end with dessert or fruit.

However, recently it has undergone quite a change due to work schedules, and for many people today it is simply a snack eaten out of the home.

Presentation has undergone quite a change too.  In ancient Rome meals were quite frugal and simple, not so much a ritual.  This, however, changed in the Republican era when meals and table setting became a sign of civilization.  The first tablecloths came into use, these were heavy carpets used to muffle sounds and absorb liquids.

In Europe, up to the middle ages, food was simply placed on tables and everyone helped themselves. 

Tablecloths and napkins arrived on tables in the mid-1400s and were white, coloured, ornate and a sign of prestige.  The upper class used spoons while others ate with their hands, up until the mid-1700s when forks arrived. 

The wealthy people had what was called French style service, where the food was displayed on wide, long tables in scenographic ways. During the Renaissance, when meals began to have more courses, well-decorated tables were cleared before a new course was brought out. 

In 1800, Prince Kourakin, ambassador of the zar to Paris, brought a new way of eating that became known as the Russian style service.  Elegantly-set tables were prepared, and when the guests were seated, waiters served freshly cooked, hot meals.

Let’s take a look now at food in our past… what did our ancestors eat?  Primitive men probably ate game that they hunted, roots and tubers, up until the discovery of farming and animal breeding, when they started to eat cereals and other animals.  Fire later allowed for them to cook their food. 

As we mentioned in our previous articles, ancient Egyptians discovered how to make bread with wheat and barley, and this accompanied their meals of smoked or sun-dried fish, cheese, pulses and fruit.

In Mesopotamia they ate cornmeal, onions, leaks, garlic, cheese and aromatic herbs.  Some foods were boiled and seasoned with sesame or olive oil, and honey. 

In ancient Greece lunch was a quick meal of olives, pulses, fish or cheese, barley bread and fruit. 

The Phoenicians ate spelt or pulses soup, bread, onions, roots and fish, while the richer families also ate game.  They also ate figs, grapes, dates and pomegranates, and used oil and honey as condiments. 

The Etruscans ate ground grains, spelt, broad beans, peas, figs, goat milk and cheese.  They also ate pork, venison, hares and roast bear, besides eels and fish. 

Poor families basically ate bread, olives, cornmeal, vegetables, pickled fish, giblets and chestnuts. 

Bread was widely used and could be black, white, prepared with different types of grains, simple or refined.  There was much fruit, apples, pears, cherries, peaches, melons, apricots, plums, walnuts, almonds, and chestnuts.

In ancient Rome there was a big difference between what the rich and the poor ate at their meals. 

The wealthier people usually had evening banquets with a large variety of food, while the poor simply had grains, vegetables, pulses, olives and herbs.  They all had, however, three meals a day: 

the first one was called jentaculum which was milk, bread, cheese and leftovers;

the prandium was vegetables, eggs and leftovers eaten quickly at mid-day;

the coena was the last meal of the day and began in the afternoon and lasted, quite often, until sunset. 

This meal included a mix of cornmeal or spelt flour and grain, called Puls, and a variety of lentils, chickpeas, ox meat, lamb, mule, wild boar, pheasant and peacock. Honey, dates and peaches were used to give flavour to the foods.  The rich families ate fresh fish, while the poor ate salted fish. 

Other products widely used in ancient Rome were asparagus that were considered an aphrodisiac, and cauliflower that was used also for medicinal purposes. 

At the time of Augustus and the conquest of the Orient, trade with Asia increased, so the meals improved and became more refined.  The use of spices increased, and eating for simple sustenance soon became eating also for taste and pleasure.

The ancient Romans paid much attention to the concept of eating good food in order to be healthy, besides the fact that eating in company was a reason for conviviality, so they were very careful in their choice and preparation of food. 

There is a famous saying by Hippocrates “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

We don’t know if our ancestors had squid, or calamari... but they would have surely appreciated this dish we present to you today. 


Articolo in italiano di Tina Ferraiuolo & Cristiana Ordioni Come si mangiava in passato?