Story: Eating

Page 1. Meals

All images & media in this story

Māori communities

Traditional Māori communities ate two main meals per day, in the morning and evening. Amongst those who lived in more isolated districts and seldom interacted with Europeans, this meal pattern continued into the second half of the 20th century. Less isolated communities adopted European meal patterns earlier.

Right on time

Some 19th-century colonists’ guides, household management books and cookbooks included sections on daily meals. Brett’s colonists’ guide stated that breakfast should be at 8 a.m., dinner at 1 p.m. and tea at 6 or 6.30 p.m. Beeton’s every-day cookery and housekeeping book stressed the importance of punctual meals and said that any breakfast that lasted from 8 to 10 a.m., instead of the suggested half an hour, was ‘fatal to regular house routine’.1

European meal patterns

19th-century European settlers ate according to the well-established meal patterns of their homelands. They had three main daily meals, supplemented by two to three smaller snacks, a pattern which persisted into the 21st century.

What changed was the timing of the main meal, usually called dinner. Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, most people ate dinner around midday. This was preceded by breakfast and followed by a lighter early evening meal, called tea, because it involved drinking tea with food.

Smaller snacks between the main ones were morning tea and afternoon tea, and some people had supper before bed. Morning and afternoon tea usually consisted of home baking. The rural and manual trades version was ‘smoko’.

The evening dinner probably developed in the larger towns and cities in the early 20th century, in association with the increasing separation between home, work and school. When the main meal occurred in the evening, the lighter midday meal was called lunch.

New customs

Immigrants have to get used to New Zealand meal patterns because their days are organised differently in their new homeland. Sosia Jiang, a year-12 school student originally from China, said in 1999: ‘Lunch was probably the biggest change of all meals. In China, I had been used to going home from school for two hours for lunch. My parents did the same and lunch was eaten together … After lunch we all took a nap before going back to school or work.’2 In New Zealand, lunch is eaten at school and work.

In 1962, when a nationwide food survey was done, almost three-quarters of New Zealanders ate their main meal in the evening. Regional differences were apparent though – over one-third of South Islanders had their main meal at midday, compared to 11% of Aucklanders. The midday dinner remained a defining feature of Sundays, with over half eating their main meal of the day then. By 1982, when the survey was repeated, 83% of New Zealanders ate their main meal in the evening. Only 21% had Sunday dinner at midday.

Location of meals

Most meals are eaten at home, aside from the midday meal during work and school hours. In the 1962 and 1982 surveys, over 90% of people ate breakfast and dinner at home. Eating out at restaurants and cafés has become considerably more popular since then.

Some older homes set aside a dining room for food consumption. If the kitchen is big enough, many families prefer its convenience and comfort to the dining room, which is only used on special occasions. Among wealthier farming families prior to the Second World War, landowners who wanted to preserve social distinctions between themselves and employees ate with family in the dining room – workers ate in the kitchen or separate cookhouse. After the war, a ‘one-table’ household was the norm.

From the 1960s, architect-designed houses had single open-plan kitchen and dining areas, which made meal preparation and consumption more public.

On marae, eating and sleeping areas were always kept separate. In modern marae, people eat in a separate whare kai (dining hall).

Meals outside the home

Work meals are eaten within the workplace (in cafeterias or eating food brought from home) or outside (at restaurants, cafés and takeaway shops). People working in professional occupations sometimes attend business lunches to conduct business and network with peers.

Takeaways, predominantly the eternally popular fish and chips, have long been available as replacements for home-cooked meals. Takeaway options increased in the early 1970s when global fast-food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s opened in New Zealand. From the 1980s ethnic takeaway outlets serving the likes of Vietnamese and Indian foods joined long-standing Chinese restaurants. A 2008–9 survey found that 66% of New Zealanders ate takeaways less than once a week, 28% once or twice a week and 6% three or more times a week.

Eat, drink and be merry

In 1856 the citizens of Nelson celebrated the fall of Sebastopol, one of the major events of the Crimean War, by marching through the town and gathering for a great feast, where ‘upwards of 2,000 persons were regaled with sandwiches of ham and beef, assisted by a plentiful supply of buns for the children, while for drinks there were furnished in no stinted quantity Nelson ale, London porter, Devonshire cider, ginger beer, &c., &c.’3

Drinking and eating

Consuming food and drink together is a sociable experience. New Zealanders have always been able to consume alcohol with meals at home, but this was not common until the 1960s. Drinking alcohol in restaurants outside hotels was heavily restricted by liquor laws from 1881 until 1962, when the first restaurant liquor licences were issued.

  1. Beeton’s every-day cookery and housekeeping book: a practical and useful guide for all mistresses and servants. London: Ward, Lock, Bowden & Co, 1893, p. xxxvii. Back
  2. Quoted in Patricia Bawden, Food and culture in New Zealand. Auckland: New House, 1999, p. 80. Back
  3. Nelson Examiner, 26 January 1856, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Eating - Meals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013