Home Clean Eating Boot Camp The History of The “Big Meal” And Why It Made Us Fat

The History of The “Big Meal” And Why It Made Us Fat

by Erika Nicole Kendall

My idea of a "big meal"..three slives of phyllo parmesan pizza. Yum.

Every now and again, I sit back and question why we do some of the things we do. Make no mistake, tradition plays a huge part and sometimes tradition makes sense – coming in the house before the street lights come on is not only something I’m glad I had to do, but now as a parent I shoo other kids home right before they come on, too – but sometimes, tradition stands to be questioned.

A tradition that I’d like to question today, is that of the “big meal.”

You know what I’m talking about… the idea that a “meal” is several starches, several veggies, a bread, a meat and a giant dessert. You’re not eating until you’ve had a meal. This kind of meal, in particular.

When I listen to people tell me what they had for “Sunday dinner,” they rattle off a list that sounds pretty similar to what I mentioned up there. To make matters worse, when I ask how often they cook, they say “Oh, I only cook Sunday – I can’t cook like that every night!” (…and this becomes their excuse for why they can’t cook.)

Why does that matter? Look at it like this – if you think that kind of a meal is what cooking really is, your conversion to clean eating is going to be a pricey one. There’s no possible way I could eat scalloped potatoes made with real cream, real cheese, real butter; a baked sweet potato; baked chicken with carrot, celery and onion dressing; peas and peach cobbler. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. I mention this because, well, the people who complain the loudest about the cost of clean eating are usually the ones cooking ridiculously large meals. Obviously, it’s time to start thinking about where this line of thinking originated.

Where did this crap come from? This idea that you’re not living unless you’re eating large? Why is it so ingrained in us, we don’t even notice that we’re eating and living larger than ever? We don’t even stop and think about whether or not this is the problem?

Tuesday dinner... Sunday style?

Once upon a time, a large feast was considered a sign of prosperity. A large meal was something heads of state (think Empresses, Emperors, Queens, Kings, Politicians, etc.) enjoyed each day, as it was reflective of her state (or how well she was taxing them, however you see it.) Not only were they eating giant meals, but they weren’t cooking them, either. Chefs, maids, butlers… all prepared a massive offering for their Master, and all Master would do is sit at the table, bang the ends of her silverware on the table, waiting for someone to come feed her. Neither she nor her family did the cooking. Or prepping. Or cleaning. It was even seen as being “beneath” them. It’s always been a sign of “success” to be able to enjoy the fruits of the labor of others. (See: capitalism.)

Meanwhile, the average person and her family… wasn’t getting down like that. Very little money was available to them, and they were reduced to making do with what they had access to – things they grew on their own, things they could barter for or the few things they could afford at the nearest store. A family could have a large meal every now and again if the harvest allowed for it, but otherwise? It was a matter of getting creative with the things easiest to grow. Corn, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, peas, carrots, green beans… had to be very clever. It was a struggle – especially with things like rationing – but with a few key ingredients, you could flip the same ingredients into five different meals and be happy. (Well, not everyone, because not everyone could cook… but that’s no different today… just sayin’.)

Don’t think the “average family” was unaware of how the rich were eating. Also, don’t think that the waistlines of the rich were unaffected by their eating habits. Oh, having that jolly-ol’-Saint-Nick-style belly was a sign of prosperity! “Eating well” was a luxury afforded only those of money! So a little extra padding wasn’t a problem at all! “Oh, you’ve been eating well!” was a compliment of high order in those days. It was letting people know that you could afford to have such regular and recurring access to the best of foods, that you were eating them enough to carry this physique. Only the poor were ever caught dead looking emaciated.

If you think about it… this mentality carried on in America up and through about the 1950s. Look at your ol’ school movies – not the ones made in the late 1900s to look like the 50s, but the movies made in the 50s – the women had curves… and were desired! (Heaven forbid, right?)

What else was happening in the late 1900s in the US that might’ve countered this attitude? Processed foods.

Ohhhhh, yes. Processed foods – made food more plentiful, made it more accessible, more available… made that average family – the one who often wants to enjoy a little luxury every now and again, and enjoy a night of “feeling rich” – more able to enjoy the finer things in life more often. Keep in mind, this is back when processed foods were actually made of, well, food.

Around the 70s, when Nixon was so generous in doing what he did to make corn, soy and wheat more available, there was a boom. The thinking became… “These real ingredients are now cheaper than the other real ingredients… so let’s do what we can to flip these real ingredients in as many different ways as possible. That way, if we’re spending less money on ingredients, we can reap more in profit.” Around here is where the chemicals came in.

Americans were still clamoring to live like the rich, because that’s “The American Dream” – an effortless life filled with lots of… things… and very little work to maintain them. Spending less time in the kitchen made it easier to work a little more, and a little harder. And with the fight for gender equality making it more common place for women to work as well, there was lots more working.

“Wait – you mean I have to do all this working, and I still can’t eat well? Oh no, that ain’t gon’ work!”

In a desire to live a lifestyle reflective of the family’s hard work, but not necessarily their income, they clung to the notion of the “big meal” while still remaining frugal. Processed foods allowed for that. But when the quality of those foods changed… it was for the worse for the family relying on them to thrive. Not only for their waistlines, but their health. It was at this time – the 90s – where the reality of this clinging to “living richly and eating poorly” began to set in:

In the early nineteen-nineties, a researcher at the C.D.C. named Katherine Flegal was reviewing the results of the survey then under way when she came across figures that seemed incredible. According to the first study, which was done in the early 60s, 24.3 per cent of American adults were overweight—roughly defined as having a body-mass index greater than twenty-seven. By the time of the second survey, conducted in the early nineteen-seventies, the proportion of overweight adults had increased by three-quarters of a per cent, to twenty-five per cent, and, by the third survey, in the late seventies, it had edged up to 25.4 per cent. The results that Flegal found so surprising came from the fourth survey. During the nineteen-eighties, the American gut, instead of expanding very gradually, had ballooned: 33.3 per cent of adults now qualified as overweight. [source]

It was hitting us, and we never even realized it.

Meanwhile, an interesting shift happened for the rich – that “little extra padding” could no longer be seen as a sign of prosperity and success because, well, the less successful were doing it, too! Well, how the hell could they afford to eat like us? They couldn’t. And well, since the rich had no desire or need to eat processed foods, they started scaling back. Hard core. Dishes with five ingredients – of high quality – yielding high flavor and proper nutrition by default became the standard. The big meal? A rarity. Now, a slim and trim physique was a status symbol. A sign of affluence. You couldn’t possibly be living – or eating – well if your body wasn’t slim.

A not-so-big meal... well, maybe it's a liiiittle big...

At the same time, you’ve got businesses springing up all catering to the idea that “you deserve a big meal, and you can come here to enjoy it!” Ohhh, you don’t think those big franchise restaurants with the massive portion sizes are selling you that because they truly believe you deserve to eat like the rich, right? No – those dishes are making them money. “If we serve them a larger portion, keep the price affordable and tell them ‘Ohhhh, they work hard all day..they deserve to be treated every day… they will come… and they will come often!!!” It quickly becomes a numbers game. For maybe 50 cents of extra product on a plate, that business can enjoy an additional $5 of profit. 50 cents can buy an awful lot of chicken and pasta when you’re buying it in bulk. Well, maybe not an awful lot, but it can buy enough to make you say “Wow!” when it’s brought to the table… and make you feel like a Queen when it’s laid before you. On the other side of the dollar, however, the smaller the dish, the bigger the real status symbol.

What originated as a desire to simply live better… turned into a capitalistic ploy to keep people convinced that they “deserved the treat of a big meal” every day. Buy these boxed and canned products and you, too, can enjoy the pleasures of a gigantic meal. If you cannot cook, come to my restaurant and eat like a Queen! If you cannot cook like this or go out to eat like that, buy my quick heat-n-eats! It became a way to show love for us – I love you enough to give you these things that are usually reserved for the rich… while those better off are eating in much smaller portions and more creative dishes. Really, it’s nauseating.

I don’t even know where the real problem lies, here – if it’s in our inability to notice we were gaining weight.. in the processed foods containing more hyphens than actual food ingredients… if it’s our desire to live above our means and feel like we’re enjoying the fruits of our labor… or what. Either way, we need to let go of this notion that “eating well” means “gigantic meals,” especially if it’s affecting the way we see cooking for our families. Using our money to compete with non-existant competitors, trying to show ourselves how far we’ve come financially by buying the cheapest “food items” and overeating on them, and showing that we “love and care for” our dependents by shoveling this stuff down their throats isn’t doing anything for our collective health. Dare I ask if this is a form of fostering emotional eating? Nah. This one’s long enough.

So.. I ask… at what point do we start to let “tradition” go?

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11 comments

JoAnna September 7, 2010 - 1:37 PM

Hello Erika. Nice post-eating holiday article.

In honor of the Labor Day holiday, I labored in my kitchen. I blanched and peeled farm fresh tomatoes, then froze them. I froze unshucked ears of corn. I grilled chicken parts and scaled white bass to freeze into individual portions. I made pesto and froze them in snack bags. I also made 3 batches of whole wheat bread dough, that I froze after the 1st rising. Peaches and plums will be next weekend. Wish I could figure out a way to freeze watermelon other than in a sorbet… Unfortunately, the pot of stir-fried collards were so good that I’ll have to make more!

I’ve found that I can stick to my diet if I can pull my own “frozen dinner” out of the freezer. With my day divided between work, school, workouts, and study, the last thing I need is to spend more than 45mins a night making lunch/dinner- especially on those 6:30am-11pm days!

And I LOVE the big meal: I just like to load up on cooked vegetables, a salad, a reasonable protein (no more 8+ozs slabs of meat!), a small starch, with fresh fruit for dessert. I can’t stand that “Y’all better widen up the doorway to roll me out of here” or “Gotta lay around like a beached whale ‘cuz I ate too much…” feeling. It is nice to be able to eat well, then go out and enjoy an evening or afternoon.

I do cook extra courses when I have people over. I make them take the leftovers with them when they leave so I’m not tempted to add a little mac and cheese, or sweet potato cassarole to my plate. My friends love me for the food and I keep my regular cooking skills honed without pigging out on the leftovers!

Erika September 7, 2010 - 1:40 PM

!!!!!!!!!

Rita September 7, 2010 - 5:54 PM

I’ve come to despise the big meal because of the sleepy feeling one gets after eating. That feeling makes me feel lazt so I keep the portions light and stick to clean eating. This past holiday, I avoided bbq’s with family and friends but did have drinks over sushi instead. I drank so much water that I could only a half cup of my mixed drink and few california rolls. I also ate at home before I went anywhere this weekend. Thanks for the tips, they worked so well, I survived the holiday!

Chelle September 8, 2010 - 9:34 AM

Great article! Is the phyllo parmesan pizza recipe on your site?

Erika September 8, 2010 - 9:37 AM

I can definitely put it up here, yeah. I was experimenting and sure enough, I wound up with pizza. LOLOL

Jasmine @ Eat Move Write September 8, 2010 - 3:23 PM

Wow. Great (informative) post. I remember studying in history class how many of the elite of Old had TERRIBLE teeth and gums because they considere large meals full of meat to be “what the rich ate.” It was the poor farmers who were able to keep their teeth because they ate diets of primarily fruits and veggies. Funny how that works.

Tiffany December 15, 2010 - 11:36 AM

TRADITION CAN BE GOOD, BUT FOR MOST PEOPLE TRADITION HAS MADE THEM STAGNATED IN LIFE. MY GRANNY OR NANA OR MOTHER OR AUNTIE DOES IT THIS WAY SO THIS IS THE WAY THAT I WILL DO IT. DON’T GET ME WRONG IF THE WAY THAT THEY ARE DOING IT IS BRINGING POSITIVE GOOD RESULTS BY ALL MEANS FOLLOW THERE EXAMPLE,BUT IF NOT FIND YOUR OWN WAY. I LOVE MY FAMILY I AM REALLY CLOSE TO MY GRANDMOTHER, BUT I DON’T AGREE WITH THE WAY SHE DOES SOMETHINGS. SO WHAT DO YOU DO YOU USE AND INVISIBLE STRAINER OR SIFTER TO FILTER OUT WHAT IS GOOD FOR YOU AND WHAT DOESN’T WORK IN YOUR LIFE. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU ARE YOUR OWN PERSON AND NOT SOME CARBON COPY OF A RELATIVE OR MENTOR IN YOUR LIFE. GOD CREATED YOU AND YOU ARE SPECIAL FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE!!!! GOD PUT PURPOSE IN YOU AND IF YOU SPEND YOUR LIFE TIME BEING LIKE SOMEONE ELSE!!! YOU INSULT GOD BY NEVER TAPPING INTO WHO AND WHAT HE CREATED YOU TO BE. FURTHERMORE YOU SPEND TO MUCH TIME MEASURING YOURSELF BY THE STANDARDS OF OTHER PEOPLE THAT WILL NEVER BE SATISFIED BECAUSE AS LONG AS THEY ARE LOOKING AT YOU THROUGH THERE OWN EYES AND IDEALS OF WHAT IS RIGHT!!! THEY WILL NEVER RECONIZE OR SEE YOU THE WAY GOD DOES OR FOR WHAT HE CREATED YOU TO BE!!! I HAD TO GET THIS OUT!!! I HOPE THIS HELPS SOMEONE AND ENCOURAGES THEM TODAY! BE BLESSED!

Lucy August 18, 2011 - 12:11 PM

I swear it’s mostly psychological.

I have a friend who is on a tight food budget and lives on the stereotypical SAD: White bread, Hamburger Helper, American cheese, incidental vegetables, Manwich. I kid you not–I didn’t quite believe people really, truly, actually, lived exclusively on this kind of thing until I ate with her. I thought it was a mean-spirited exaggeration.

Anyway, she swears she can’t lose weight because healthy food costs too much. Well, for starters: If she didn’t change her shopping habits but ate reasonable portions, she would lose weight by that alone. One box of Hamburger Helper is, what, 4 servings? I don’t actually know, but since they market it as a family dinner, I’m 90% sure it’s more than two.

The money she would save not eating double portions of junk would allow her to buy good food.

Sam October 16, 2012 - 11:45 PM

I’ll admit that on holidays I do enjoy the buffet style dinners but on a regular day it’s just too much. For dinner tonight I had lime cilantro chicken and swiss chard. I got my protein, lots of vitamins, and my healthy fats in the form of extra virgin olive oil. That’s all that I need to nourish my body. I know I’ll sleep better and wake better because I didn’t eat a gigantic heavy meal.

DNLee May 23, 2013 - 11:10 AM

Big meals were also about how people lived too, which don’t fully addressed. Not discounting your take on the richness of food and what it signaled to others about your economics, but people lived a more rigorous lifestyle.
You needed lots of calories to make it through the day – walking uphill to school both ways and all. Since until the 1950’s MOST people lived an agrarian lifestyle – with little to no mechanization, it look labor and hard work to get anything done, including preparing food and meals.

And of you think about it, exercise is really a first world, modern world phenomena. Really, who needed to exercise to build muscle or stay lean (or had the time). You worked hard all day and night. As a result many of us never had any exercise role models. You were either lean & muscle or you weren’t. And I’m seeing naturally fit people (men especially) who don’t exercise at all. But they haul carts of potatoes by hand or push hundreds of pounds of charcoal or sugar cane – on the back of bicycle on bumpy dirty roads. They eat calorie rich, heavy starch meals here. They need it.

And if you think about us – historically/evolutionarily – we’re still eating (or prefer to eat) in ways to satisfy historical hunger when calories were hard earned AND hard to come by.
Sugar was a treat, so were gouged on fruits when they were in season, gaining some weight wasn’t a problem, it would tide you over. So our Pre-disposition to like sugar and starches are built into our biology. Our quick and cheap and continuous access to them is not, therefore we’re gaining weight and suffering health problems related to diet/metabolism.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 24, 2013 - 12:19 PM

“[…] people lived a more rigorous lifestyle. You needed lots of calories to make it through the day – walking uphill to school both ways and all.”

Yeah, but that’s a hunger driven by the amount of energy being burned. If you’re not burning 5,000 calories a day, you wouldn’t have it in you to finish that amount of food, unprocessed. Besides, food processing changes the amount of time it takes to cook the most high-calorie meals; you can have scalloped potatoes in under 20 minutes, when it normally takes hours? You can have macaroni and cheese in 5 minutes, instead of an hour and a half? The ability to make “scalloped potatoes and chicken” in 30 minutes instead of, say, “porridge” makes a difference.

So, really, that underscores the reality that excessive processing has not only messed with our satiety levels, but also our ability to throttle our control of intake in conjunction with our energy levels.

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