What Actually Makes A Breakfast 'Continental'?

Breakfast is often touted as the most important meal of the day, but looking back, the opposite seems to be true. In the Middle Ages, early morning meals were considered sinful, with Thomas Aquinas writing that eating too soon was a mark of the deadly sin of gluttony, (via The Atlantic). According to History Extra, the concept of breakfast didn't take off until the 16th century, and even then, it was a small meal taken only by the hardest-working members of society. In his 1542 guide, Dietary of Health, Andrew Boorde noted that "a labourer may eat three times a day," while "two meals are adequate for a rest man."

As the Industrial Revolution made more laborers, breakfast became all the more essential, and many people, particularly in the British Isles, started seriously packing calories into their mornings. The Full English and Full Irish breakfasts typically include bacon, sausages, beans, vegetables, bread, and eggs. According to The Atlantic, the shift to giant morning meals made indigestion a major issue for 19th-century Celts and Brits. There had to be a happy medium between having no breakfast and wolfing down enough calories to feed a bear. That's where the continental breakfast came in.

A light meal inspired by the French

While the Irish and English got in the habit of eating a massive breakfast, a different trend emerged in France, where Mental Floss notes that the petit déjeuner, literally "small breakfast," was a light morning meal consisting of coffee, bread, and maybe fruit. According to Freshways, the term continental breakfast emerged in the U.K. in the 19th century to refer to small meals taken on the European mainland. This idea was later passed to the U.S., where heavy breakfasts had also become the norm, featuring carb-heavy dishes like pancakes and home fries.

The continental breakfast appealed to American hotel owners for a few reasons. They believed that the lighter style of eating would attract European tourists, and also because a small meal is cheaper to provide, as you don't need as many staff members handling the dining room when there are only a few trays of cold items to serve. However, American travelers initially resisted the continental breakfast. An excerpt from The Sanitarian, a late-1800s magazine dedicated to health matters, complained that "European travel has had a depleting effect on that fine old institution — breakfast." Mental Floss recounts an even more scathing review from Harper's Weekly that said continental breakfasts had no place in the "hemisphere where the Monroe Doctrine and the pie should reign supreme." Yet here we are, over a century later, and the continental breakfast is as much a staple of hotels as bellhops and room service.