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by Kerryn Pollock

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.


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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in Patricia Bawden, Food and culture in New Zealand. Auckland: New House, 1999, p. 80. Back
    • Nelson Examiner, 26 January 1856, p. 2. Back

Families and hospitality

Family meals

Eating together is an important family ritual. Shared meals enable families to spend quality time together and allow children to learn good eating habits from their parents.

A 2011 study explored family meal participation by young people (school years 9–14) over a week. It found that:

  • 35% shared seven or more meals with their families
  • 41% shared three to six meals
  • 24% shared two or fewer meals.

Maternal employment was not associated with the frequency of family meals – families with working mothers ate together just as often as those with mothers not in paid employment.

Multiple mouths

Paihia missionaries Marianne and Henry Williams were accustomed to receiving large numbers of visitors – Marianne referred to the mission as the ‘Paihia Hotel’. On one occasion, when they were hosting a missionary committee, she fed ’32 Europeans to different sittings to tea and 27 to dinner’, some of whom included ‘accidental visitors’.1


Providing visitors with meals and food is a long-standing New Zealand tradition which pre-dates European settlement. In the Māori world it is encompassed by the term manaakitanga (hospitality). Amongst Europeans, the expectation that visitors – both familiar faces and strangers – would be given something to eat, even if they turned up without warning, arose from the uncertainty of food and accommodation availability in the early years of settlement. This hospitality was typically dispensed by women.

Food-based hospitality was a survival mechanism. It turned into a social code which survived into the late 20th century, when women were expected to bake regularly to ‘fill the tins’ and to cook extra food for main meals so unexpected visitors could always be fed.

Social events

Special meals which deviate from the normal eating pattern and include guests make eating a more public event. Women in the upper echelons of society held midday luncheon parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some women demonstrated their baking skills at morning and afternoon teas held in homes or, if related to community activities, in public places such as community halls.

Evening dinner parties where guests dined in a private home were also common, even when the main meal was ordinarily at midday. Dinner parties remained an important way of offering family, friends and acquaintances food-based hospitality in the 2000s. Pot-luck dinners, where hosts and guests contribute food, are more informal and probably rose in popularity in the late 20th century as more women entered paid employment.

Moonlight feast

Katikati settler Adela Stewart wrote a delightful description of a picnic she hosted in 1882: ‘My brother suggested a moonlight picnic on the Waihi beach, so … we set to work and made all sorts of cakes, pies and sausage-rolls…. Then after early dinner we started, a party of thirty, in carts and on horseback, to the beautiful Waihi beach spring where the boys lit a fire, boiled water in billies, made tea and feasted. Then followed songs, dances and athletic sports on the sands, and so home at one in the morning by moonlight.’2

Picnics have taken diners outdoors since the 19th century. Māori, farm workers and swaggers (itinerant single men) regularly ate outside. New Zealand’s barbecue culture is more recent, getting started in the 1950s.

Special occasions

Eating is a key element of major celebrations, events and religious observances. In Māori communities, sharing food is a traditional part of events such as tangihanga. Vast quantities of food were consumed at hākari (feasts) held to mark auspicious events, such as peace agreements between previously warring tribes.

Formal public dinners celebrating people and events were popular in the 19th century. These dinners were typically held at hotels, and diners bought tickets to them.

Shared meals take place at annual events such as Christmas and special occasions such as weddings. Lavish eating is conspicuous by its absence during religious observances such as Lent, the period of self-denial by Christians in the lead-up to Easter.

Relaxed observance

Lent was observed by missionary and church families, but not always universally, as this 1851 excerpt from Vicesimus Lush’s journal shows: ‘Dear little Charlie’s birthday. Though it was Lent we had to commemorate the event a stewed beef steak and baked plum pudding: and after dinner a glass of wine between all the children over which they drank one another’s health.’3

Different cultures

Eating traditional foods together is a way for people from minority ethnic and religious groups to retain the cultures of their homelands. For instance, Lebanese people who settled in Dunedin from the late 19th century made a point of gathering together for meals of traditional foods. Chinese communities held feasts at Chinese New Year and meals were shared during the Jewish Passover and Diwali (festival of lights celebrated by South Asian peoples). Free communal meals were available at Gurudwara, Sikh places of worship.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 155. Back
    • Quoted in Miriam Macgregor, Etiquette & elbowgrease: housekeeping in Victorian New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1976, p. 69. Back
    • Quoted in Jill Brewis, Colonial fare: in which we learn of the amazing fortune and fate of pioneering women who ventured from their kitchens at Home to embark upon a new life in the unknown territory of New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen, 1982, p. 170. Back

Getting enough to eat


Hunger was one of the major drivers of British emigration in the 19th century. Significant population growth from the 18th century, combined with repeated crop failures and urban migration, created a hunger crisis in the United Kingdom and Europe. Working-class people simply did not get enough to eat and what they did eat was lacking in nutritional value.

Land of plenty

In 1874 Louisa Johnson, who had settled at Careys Bay in Otago with her family, urged friends in England to join them in New Zealand ‘if you want to come out of bondage into liberty … Joe [her husband] says he will get you all such a meal as you never had at home.’1 A letter printed in the Labourers’ Union Chronicle the following year expressed similar satisfaction: ‘This is the country for living – beef, mutton, butter and eggs, and everything else that is good … We are as happy as the day is long. I would not come back on any account, for we can get something to lean over, no water broth, but a good belly full of beef.’2

New Zealand presented hungry people with the opportunity to eat well and improve their standard of living. Early European settler communities struggled with food shortages, but good employment options and the chance to own land meant that immigrants could more easily buy or produce their own healthy food by the late 1850s. Written correspondence by 19th-century settlers is full of talk about the good eating (especially of meat) to be had in New Zealand.

Economic depression

Many people went hungry during the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Falls in export receipts and resulting unemployment of 12–15% meant that most people had less money to spend, including on food.

Bare cupboards

One woman who lived through the depression recalled the dire straits she found her sick neighbour in: ‘It was late afternoon and I found her and her two small children in bed. She looked really ill. I wanted to make her tea and something to eat, but she kept saying, “No, No”. I went home and made tea, then I went to her cupboard for sugar. It was completely bare except for a small bag of sago. I asked her if that was all she had. She said she was waiting for her husband to come home with the dole, but the scoundrel had been away for hours.’3

While some could fall back on home vegetable patches, the 30% drop in sales of staple food items such as pork, beef and potatoes suggested that many people experienced serious hunger. Cookbooks and columns in women’s magazines and newspapers explained how to make scarce food go further. Soup kitchens fed those who could not feed themselves.

Rationing during the Second World War

During the Second World War, tea, sugar, butter, eggs and certain types of meat were rationed so they could be sent to Britain and to American troops stationed in the Pacific. This did not cause people on the home front to go hungry, but it did restrict the variety of their diets and forced cooks to think creatively about meals. Most rationing ended in 1948 – dairy products and eggs followed in 1950.

Food insecurity

Food security is when people can regularly get adequate, healthy food in legitimate ways. Since the 1990s researchers have expressed concerns about the number of New Zealanders who do not get enough to eat or are unable to eat a healthy range of foods for financial reasons. This is called food insecurity.

A 1997 study of low-income households found that one-third did not have enough food and 40% constantly worried about food supply. A 2008–9 nationwide study found 80.2% of New Zealanders said they could always afford to eat properly, 16.4% could afford to eat properly sometimes and 3.4% could never afford to.

At the same time, concerns were expressed about increasing obesity – this was associated with eating takeaways and processed snacks instead of healthy food, which was more labour-intensive to prepare. The people who experience food insecurity are likely to have problems with obesity.

    • Quoted in Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land: English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s. Wellington: Victoria University Press; Price Milburn, 1981, p. 60. Back
    • Quoted in The farthest promised land, p. 243. Back
    • Quoted in Eve Ebbett, Victoria’s daughters: New Zealand women of the thirties. Wellington: Reed, 1981, p. 29. Back

Table etiquette

Table etiquette is the customs and rules that govern socially acceptable eating practices. It encompasses eating utensils and equipment and their display and use, and the way people eat food when they sit down to a meal. For some people, table etiquette is important, but for many, eating is a more casual experience in which only the most basic customs are observed.

Dressing for dinner

Sarah Selwyn, wife of the first Bishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn, paid great heed to etiquette and table manners. Everyone who dined at her table had to ‘dress for dinner’ (wear formal clothes) even if the evening meal was a light one of tea and bread.

Common etiquette

Basic habits passed from parents to children include washing hands before eating, holding utensils correctly, keeping elbows off the table, not talking with full mouths, not putting knives in mouths, leaving utensils together on the plate when the meal is finished and asking permission to leave the table. Such conventions would have been familiar to children growing up in the 19th century, as well as their 21st-century counterparts.

Decorous drinking and sparing eating

Enquire within, a New Zealand etiquette and handy-hints book published from around the 1930s to the 1950s, had a section entitled ‘How to behave at the table’. Mainly comprising ‘nevers’ and ‘do nots’, the 20 instructions were primarily designed to prevent people from committing faux pas at dinner parties. Choice examples include ‘when drinking do not raise your glass above your lips, raise perpendicularly to lips, and then to slight angle’ and ‘never eat the last mouthful of soup, or last fragment of bread, or last mouthful of food. You are not expected to clean everything up.’1

Table settings

19th-century household management guides provided information on serving meals, laying tables, napkin folding and table decorations for those concerned with such things. These books assumed that middle- and upper-class families would follow these practices on a daily basis, though they also provided suggestions for special occasions such as dinner parties. Books and magazine articles on this topic were still published in the 21st century, but their suggestions were clearly aimed at givers of dinner parties and not intended for daily use.

Utensils and equipment

Traditional Māori communities served food in baskets, which were shared between small groups. High-ranking people had their own basket and were always given a new basket for tapu reasons. Food was eaten by hand and meat was passed around the group.

Rusty spoons and brassy forks

Margaret Herring wrote to her sister Nellie in 1861, describing the relaxed housekeeping method of her hosts Hannah and Richard Barton: ‘Mrs B. is a woman of tremendous energy and triumphs in the possession of a will strong enough for a dozen women, but her contempt for what she calls “petty paltry pride” makes her do everything in a rough and ready fashion and encourages herself in a disregard for the refinements of life which to me is blameworthy even in this remote district … On the table for instance, silver sugar basin and rusty iron salt spoons, silver table spoons and common brassy looking forks and old tin tea pot.’2

European settlers brought eating utensils and equipment – knives, forks, spoons and plates – with them. Some came with a diverse array of equipment beyond the basics so they could replicate the elegant dining practices of home. Others were happy to throw off these social shackles and eat in a more relaxed fashion.

Saying grace

Saying grace is giving thanks to the Christian God for food before eating a meal. Non-Christian religions may give thanks to their own deities. One well-known grace is ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful’. Saying grace was once a common way to begin a meal but its use declined throughout the 20th century as fewer people went to church.

    • Enquire within: hundreds of things worth knowing. Palmerston North: W. J. Crawford, 1940, p. 4. Back
    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Bridget Williams Books, 1996, pp. 169–170. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Eating', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013