Story: Eating

Until the mid-20th century, most New Zealanders had their main meal – dinner – in the middle of the day, but by the 2000s the main meal was at night, and lunch was often a sandwich or leftovers eaten at school or work. Sharing food with others remained an important way of enjoying time with family or friends.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Eating school lunches, Windy Ridge School, Auckland, 2007

Story summary

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Traditional Māori communities ate two meals a day, in the morning and evening.

European settlers ate three meals a day. Before the 1940s and 1950s most people had their main meal (dinner) in the middle of the day, and a light meal called ‘tea’ in the evening. Over the 20th century it became more common to have the main meal at night.

Snacks between meals were morning tea or afternoon tea – sometimes called ‘smoko’ by farm or manual workers.

Most meals are eaten at home – although people often have lunch at work or school. People also buy takeaway food, and eating out at restaurants has become more common, as has drinking alcohol with meals.

Sharing food

Sharing meals allows families to spend time together and children to learn good eating habits.

Hospitality – sharing meals and food with visitors – is a New Zealand tradition. Māori call it manaakitanga. In the early days of European settlement, accommodation and food were not always available, so it was expected that people would feed visitors.

Social events often involve eating – including morning and afternoon teas, dinner parties, picnics and, from the 1950s, barbecues.

Māori held hākari (feasts) to mark important events, and 19th-century Pākehā had formal public dinners to celebrate people and events. People from other ethnic cultures share traditional foods on special occasions.


Hunger in Britain and Europe was one reason people moved to New Zealand in the 19th century. However, many went hungry during the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and food was rationed during the Second World War. In the 2000s some low-income people struggled to afford good food.

Table etiquette

Household management guides in the 19th century included advice about serving meals, laying tables, folding napkins and table decorations. In the 2000s everyday meals were less formal.

Traditionally Māori served food in baskets, shared between small groups. High-ranking people ate from their own, new basket. People ate with their hands.

Saying grace is thanking God for food before eating. It was once a common way to begin a meal, but became less usual as fewer people went to church.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Eating', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 September 2013