Dinner or Supper? And Where Does Lunch Fit in This?

What’s the last meal you eat over the course of the day: dinner or supper? The answer likely depends on where you live, or at least on where you were raised.

Back in 2013, for an episode of a weekly feature I ran called the “Saturday Six,” I asked whether you call the last meal of the day dinner or supper. But also asked a second question about the word:

What do you usually call the meal you have in the middle of the day: lunch or dinner?

Yes, it seems the D-word floats around in various slots. Some who call the middle meal “lunch” refer to the final meal of the day as “dinner.” Those who call the middle meal “dinner” might call the evening meal “supper.”

And then, of course, there are those who forego “dinner” altogether in favor of lunch and supper.

I did a quick informal poll of some friends of mine and a few told me this whole “supper” business must be a Southern thing. But supper is far from an Old South creation.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which traces the origin of words, supper came into our language in the mid-13th century from Old French’s soper, which meant the evening meal.

You shouldn’t need to be a historian to realize that the “South” didn’t quite exist in the mid-13th century.

And since about the year 1300, the last big meal Jesus Christ consumed with his disciples has been known as the “Last Supper.”

But back to that dictionary: it states that supper used to refer to the last of the three meals of the day. But it’s now used to mean the last substantial meal of the day (as opposed to a snack) when dinner, generally considered a big meal in its own right, happens earlier in the evening or around lunch time.

Supper is generally less formal than dinner.

For people who use the term supper, it’s the last meal of the day and the middle meal is either lunch or dinner.

For people who generally don’t use the term supper, the last meal of the day is dinner and the middle meal is lunch. But I’m not sure what these people do on Thanksgiving Day when the big “Thanksgiving dinner” is served at lunchtime. I suppose that depending on how big that meal is and how much people indulge, there may not even be another meal that evening.

Wait a second — what am I saying? Who’d skip a meal just because it’s Thanksgiving? Silly me!

For people who prefer lunch and dinner, supper can even be a lighter meal — a sandwich, for example — before bed. But you better consider your waistline if you’re eating that many meals!

How about you: do you usually use lunch and dinner, lunch and supper or dinner and supper?

1 Comment

  1. Before I read this post, which I know I will love, I’m going to tell you that my parents were in some ways simple people about things like this. They were much more complex in being into science, how they felt about religion, politics, etc.. But this sort of thing seemed to either not mean anything, soured them in childhood, or just completely eluded them. (My personal vote is the second reason, at least for my mother.)

    My paternal grandmother was completely different. She was not overly intellectual, did not care to learn more, and was very into the trappings of life and society, and thinking about “what would the neighbours do”, something that sailed right over my head and, truthfully, still does. Breakfast was the first day of the meal (usually 07:00), lunch the second (12:00), and supper, the third and final meal (18:00). Usually supper was the largest meal, but only slightly more so than lunch. In the 1970s, one did not know or realise that breakfast is really meant to get your day started. Snacks were allowed.

    The term “dinner” applied to a fancy meal served at 15:00, no exceptions. Christmas Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc, all were big, family, get-out-the-real-silver-and-China, high-end meals. Only the best. Turkey, of course, on thanksgiving (except for me – I have always intensely disliked turkey as a food source). Christmas varied, and my favourite, Easter (owing nothing to the holiday itself), ham! I love ham! And of course the amounts of candy – well! Generous was the word there.

    In our life together, over 28 years, Luis and I have had maybe a handful of parties. My parents held parties, too – almost never dinners, like my grandmother served. In some ways I miss that, but mostly that kind of “refined dining” is uncomfortable *in extremis* and I would almost rather be anywhere else. There have been some truly awful weddings we have attended (all of them long since divorced, I might add), that were so posh and fancy, I wanted to hide somewhere – the biggest, if you can imagine, was 600 guests. In fact, don’t imagine it, it was my worst nightmare… I don’t like crowds and once the guest list hits 120, I’m not the least bit interested in going. The best weddings did not exceed 50 guests, in a nice restaurant, save the whole gaudy mess for others.

    Parties are fun, casual, and comfortable. As my parents got older, of course, the parties came to their natural end as have ours, now that we’re in our 50s. But we like having friends over, but not cooking and hosting the whole ordeal – we order out. Even my maternal side of the family, held pleasant comfortable parties and dinners, with a lot of convivial conversations and happiness. The only one I did not enjoy was the Satyr (I believe that is the correct spelling) held for Passover, but more it was to do with not learning Yiddish and not liking the food. My mother was an atheist, so I had a happy childhood in that only when I spent time with my parternal grandparents who made me go to a Methodist church, and you know why.

    “What would the neighbours think?”

    Now, to read your post! Most of it I had a pretty good idea about it, although north or south, I have only very rarely heard of lunch as dinner a casual sense! Not sure how I missed that, but I did. The real surprise, however, was— can you guess? Not that I won’t tell, but give it a moment’s thought and tell me, if, by chance you figured it out…

    The real surprise was reading that some of your friends you polled commented that supper was a “southern” thing! I have always read the etymology of every word I read, at some time or another! And never did any dictionary read that!

    In fact, my current iPad dictionary shows this: “c.1275, “the last meal of the day,” from O.Fr. super “supper,” noun use of super “to eat the evening meal,” which is of Gmc. origin (see sup (1)).”Formerly, the last of the three meals of the day (breakfast, dinner, and supper); now applied to the last substantial meal of the day when dinner is taken in the middle of the day, or to a late meal following an early evening dinner. Supper is usually a less formal meal than late dinner.” [OED]Applied since c.1300 to the last meal of Christ.”

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.