Meal Frequency Around the World: What Can We Learn from Other Cultures?

Photo: Thinkstock/Ozgur Coskun

Many cultures eat small, frequent meals while others stick to three larger meals per day. What are the health implications? Well, there is no global consensus on how many meals one should eat to stay healthy.

If the goal is general health and wellness, one should aim to find a consistent eating frequency that provides satiation while maintaining caloric balance. Quality of meals and quantity of nutrients at the end of the day are more important than meal frequency alone.  Plus, meal frequency is determined by individual nutrition needs, lifestyle and culture.

Here are some meal patterns in different cultures provided by Country Representatives, or CRs, of the Academy’s international affiliate, the American Overseas Dietetic Association:

Argentina—CR Romina Defranchi

Dietary guidelines for Argentineans recommend having four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon meal, or merienda, and dinner. That’s the most common pattern, with breakfast and merienda being smaller meals. Dinner tends to be the biggest meal and is usually late, around 9 p.m. Yogurt and fresh fruits are common snacks.

Czech Republic—CR Terezie Mosby

Three meals and two snacks a day are common. Breakfast usually is pastry and milk. Snacks also can be a pastry or open-face sandwich (Czechs eat a lot of bread) or fruit.

Dominican Republic—CR Anayanet Jackez

Three meals a day, with a big breakfast made of plantains (mangu), fried eggs, white cheese or fried salami with cooked onions on top. It is not common to have snacks during the day but some enjoy eating tropical fruit. Lunch is the heaviest meal of the day, which includes a large amount of rice and beans with some meat (stewed chicken or pork). Dinner tends to be similar to breakfast.

Germany—CR Nichole Erickson

During weekdays most people eat three meals a day. The main meal is usually eaten at lunch and Brotzeit, or bread with different toppings, generally is eaten in the morning and evening. Muesli with yogurt is an alternative to bread for breakfast. On weekends, and especially Sunday, many eat a drawn-out brunch. On such days two meals are normal, and some skip lunch on the weekend for coffee and cake.

Greece—CR Elena Paravantes

Greeks typically have four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon coffee and dinner. Traditionally the largest meal was lunch, but many have changed their habits to a more Westernized style of living. Greeks eat a late dinner around 9 to 10 p.m. If lunch was substantial, then dinner is lighter, such as fruit with yogurt, sandwich, salad or a small amount of leftovers.

Jamaica—CR Patricia Thompson

Farming communities have two large main meals daily, with lots of snacking in between — fruit, juice and local sweet treats made from coconut. Lunch is called dinner and taken between 2 to 3 p.m. In urban areas, they have three main meals with different kinds of snacks such as chips, fast food, etc.

Laos—CR Joanna Cummings

Three meals with small portion sizes and sticky rice, rolled into little balls and used as a utensil. People in urban areas eat breakfast usually consisting of rice porridge with fish, pork or water buffalo and tropical fruits. Lunch may contain noodle soup with fish, chicken or pork. Dinner is laap — a minced meat and herb dish eaten with sticky rice. People living in rural communities may not have as much meat and are typically subsistence farmers that fish, hunt wild game or collect leaves, roots and mushrooms.

UK—student CR Kamelia Burjuklieva

Three main meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner, or supper, some call it. Typically, the biggest meal is in the evening, except for Sundays when lunch is also known as “roast dinner.”  During the weekend, families and friends have brunch and/or afternoon tea, with finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, cakes, etc. and, of course, tea with milk.

Bottom Line

Meal patterns are varied across the globe and good nutrition is not just about number of meals. Although the Westernization of lifestyles in many countries can challenge the traditions of cooking homemade meals eaten as a family, we as food and nutrition experts can help people everywhere to have a more holistic attitude about food, emphasizing higher nutrition quality, more diverse foods and meal sharing.

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Romina Barritta de Defranchi
Romina Barritta de Defranchi, DTR, is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and is licenciada en nutrición. She specializes in international dietetics and is country representative for Argentina in the American Overseas Dietetics Association. She runs GlobalDietitians.com, a networking site for food and nutrition professionals from around the world. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.