American English vs British English – Meal Times Edition

American English vs British English

Back with some more American English vs British English confusion I’ve encountered since moving to England.

Do you know what I mean when I talk about breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just in case you don’t, in the correct order, I mean the morning meal, the midday meal, and the evening meal. Pretty basic English, right? Actually, I often find these exact words adopted in other languages to mean the same thing, so it seems pretty universal. Or so I thought until I moved to England. Here they call the midday meal ‘dinner’ and the evening meal ‘tea’. Breakfast is still breakfast, phew at least I got that right.

Whenever we try to arrange who gets what lunch hour at work, my coworkers are always talking about their ‘dinner’. They will ask if I had had my ‘dinner’ yet. Which is just so strange if dinner exclusively means evening meal in your head, and it’s only 12:30 in the afternoon. I had a contractor on the phone once, who needed to come to the bank to fix something and he asked if it was ok if he came around dinner time. Since the bank closes before 5 pm, obviously I told him that that would be too late, since we never open in the evenings. After he understood my confusion he told me he meant 12 in the afternoon…

During one of my work training sessions, when we first moved here, we would play warm-up games. To sort us into groups the trainer told us to stand in alphabetical order of some topic, for example your favorite color or vacation spot. At one point, the topic was whatever tea we were going to have that night. Now, I am quite used to flavored tea, we have quite a large variety of tea flavors in the Netherlands. Most of them fruity. My favorite cactus flavor is actually a bit exotic and unusual. But not nearly as unusual as the flavors my English fellow trainees were coming up there and then: pizza, fish and chips, and soup?! What the…? I was thoroughly confused and disgusted. Took me a while to figure out that ‘tea’ meant dinner. And no, I was not going to have strawberry tea for dinner, seems I had confused them as well with my answer.

Of course, after a while you get more used to these differences, but I don’t think I’ll ever start calling lunch ‘dinner’, nor dinner ‘tea’.

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14 thoughts on “American English vs British English – Meal Times Edition

    • They don’t do supper in this region of England. But they do do ‘afternoon tea’, which is different from ‘tea’ though. So ‘tea’ is the evening meal (dinner in American English) and ‘afternoon tea’ is actual tea (or coffee) – oh and all tea is drunk with milk in it – with a variety of finger food ranging from savory to sweet (tiny triangle sanwiches, scones and clotted cream, and cake) usually served on a tiered cupcake stand. It is usually had in the afternoon, before the evening meal sometimes instead of the midday meal. In my country we call ‘afternoon tea’ High Tea. Yup, complicated. So are you still with me or have I lost you ;)?!

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      • I am with you! I have to go look and see where in England you are, though. Some areas of the U.S. have tea/ high tea as well, though it is usually for special occasions. Perhaps if you are staying in an old-fashioned Bed & Breakfast in New England or a very nice hotel. Others have the “wine & cheese” prior to supper and others have “cocktails.”

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      • I’m in the Peak District, which is kind of in the middle and Nothern part of England, I guess… Afternoon tea here is also only for special occasions, very fancy, served in quaint tea shops, that kind of thing. Fun to take visitors to :).

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    • Hmmm not sure I am used to it. Lived here for 1.5 years now. I can understand their terms and I was getting used to the ‘dinner’ midday meal thing at work. But being on maternity leave I’m hearing it less and less and we just call it lunch at home.

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  1. In India we tend to have ‘tea’ around 6pm which is tea with snacks as the actual ‘dinner’ (i.e. evening meal) only happens after 10pm… or if you have folks over for ‘drinks’ (alcoholic) you actually serve food only when it is a signal for people to go home i.e. around 1am?! Go figure!

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    • It’s really interesting these cultural differences. I was once served birthday cake and coffee at 11 pm at a Belgian’s birthday get-together. It was right before guests were leaving. It was strange to me because in the Netherlands we serve that at the beginning of the party. And chips, snack and alcohol later on, but that’s what the Belgians started with. We’re neighbor countries yet still such a strange difference.

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  2. Just learned something new! That sure is confusing.
    And reminds me of Hong Kong “Yum cha”, which means to “drink tea”, but you actually go eat dim sum. I was really surprised the first time I was taken out to ‘drink tea’, after I already ate something before we went so I wouldn’t be hungry.

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