Whatever Happened to Second Breakfast?

"On-the-go Americans increasingly are consuming their morning calories over several hours instead of sitting down to devour a plate of pancakes, bacon and eggs in one sitting," wrote Candice Choi in the Huffington Post earlier this year.

At Time, Kate Springer wrote about the phenomenon in an article titled "More Americans Are Treating Themselves to 'Second Breakfast.'" In it, Springer wrote: "This may be new in the U.S., but second breakfast is a staple in countries such Germany."

And over at The Stir, Adriana Velez recapped a Stephen Colbert segment in which the faux news anchor made fun of the idea of second breakfast, even as the concept has "caught on in mainstream America at last."

The only problem? Second breakfast has been popular in America for at least 100 years. In fact, second breakfast is far less popular now than it was in "mainstream America" half a century ago.


Colbert's assessment of the modern second breakfast was right on point, however.

The second breakfasts that Americans ate in the 1950s and 1960s were composed of real food: coffee, simple pastries, a little meat or cheese, occasionally some fruit.

This second breakfast came after an even lighter early-morning meal of coffee and perhaps one piece of bread or fruit. The mid-morning meals were modeled after those German second breakfasts -- gabelfrühstück -- although it's hard to say if the mimicry was deliberate or simply a gradual embracing of German immigrants' influences over time.

The second breakfasts Colbert is currently decrying are packaged foods -- introduced by monolithic food giants like Kraft -- and fast-food breakfasts like those now offered at Taco Bell, most of them filled with preservatives and chemicals and empty calories. The 21st-century second breakfast is an unintentional mockery of the two light mid-morning meals of the last century, one meant to break the night's fast gently and early on and the other meant as a time for socializing and reflection with friends over a slightly larger meal.

Back in 1947, newspapers such as the Troy Record were reporting that "mid-morning 'second breakfast' has become an institution in the American business world."

"Chicago bosses say they've given up resistance to the 10 a.m. exodus for coffee. In fact, now that most of them have taken up the habit, they think it's a good idea..." the article continued. "Restaurateurs estimate 90 per cent of Chicago's office workers duck out for coffee in the morning, that 30 per cent probably have had an earlier breakfast, and that most of them eat something with their coffee. They report a penchant for sweet rolls among the women, while ham and eggs is the most popular 'snack' among the males."

Second breakfasts had become so enormously popular by the mid-20th century that many businesses started bringing in caterers and food carts to satisfy their employees' mealtime preferences. (It also eliminated the peccadillo of employees leaving each mid-morning to grab a few bites to eat.)

By 1967 -- only 20 years later -- even government agencies had given over to second breakfast demands. Or, as it was beginning to be called then, a "coffee break."

"The city government moved yesterday to expedite the civil service coffee break by bringing midmorning refreshments to offices rather than have employes slip out to get them or send time on the phone for calling for orders," wrote David Bird in the New York Times.

"Public Work Commissioner Eugene E. Hult began the new system yesterday morning when he started 14 shiny metal carts carrying coffee, milk, juices and cakes from Schrafft's on regular rounds among the 5,000 city employees in the Municipal Building...." Bird noted that this less expensive second breakfast -- this coffee break -- would save employees money, "because the Schrafft's prices (15 cents for coffee, 15 cents for danish) average less than those charged by take-out services at neighboring coffee shops."

It could be then, that coffee breaks marked the demise of the second breakfast nearly as quickly as the meal had risen in popularity, confining workers to their office buildings and limiting their time for socialization and dining to the hours outside 9 to 5.

Company cafeterias and breakrooms also became widespread in the 1960s, as the modern 20th century office began to emerge and define itself. Coffee breaks were once as novel as copy machines, although both are now accepted as standard -- and even increasingly unnecessary -- vestiges of office culture past.

Another suspected culprit behind the decline of second breakfast in America was the increased emphasis on a heavy meal first thing in the morning. Towards the middle of the 20th century, the advertising and agriculture industries began pushing for big meals centered around eggs, bacon, milk, cereal, toast and more.

I'm not opposed to the idea of second breakfast making a comeback in America. In fact, I think that adopting the practice of eating two smaller but nutritious meals over the course of a morning -- one of those taken with friends or family each day -- would make us healthier and happier overall. Taco Bell just isn't the right place to start.

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Katharine Shilcutt