If You Grew Up in the South or the Midwest, ‘Dinner’ and ‘Supper’ Meant Different Things
Dinner. It’s a time for families to gather, a way to get to know a new date, and often the largest meal of the day. We scour the web and TV stations for recipes that fit our lifestyles, tastes, and diets.
But there’s a small detail most people do not think about when hungry: what’s the difference between dinner and supper? If you didn’t think such a distinction existed, it did and still does depending on who you talk to.
There are two things at work here. One has to do with the amount of food on your plate and the other is region. Traditionally, supper was the last meal of the day and its size was/is smaller than the midday meal.
According to food historian Helen Zoe Veit, this originated from a time when the South had an agricultural economy and farmers were on a busy work schedule. That meant meals were typically breakfast and dinner, with dinner being eaten around noontime as a large feast.
Farmers needed to load up after spending their mornings at work and to continue plowing through the rest of the day with enough energy. If they were still hungry after coming home in the evening, a light supper would be served.
Here’s where a fun fact on etymology comes into play. The word “supper” is derived from the French term “souper” which means “to have supper” and “soupe” meaning soup. In homes across the country, pots of soup or beans were often left on the stove to simmer as a light meal at night. What was probably more common was dinner leftovers being served for supper.
Today, dinner seems to be the most popular word to use for the evening meal, but in some places, supper refers to what’s eaten on Sundays. And lunch is what you eat midday. So, you may have breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the week, but breakfast and supper on Sunday.
Mid-westerners are also known to refer to the last meal as supper, but part of this could be generational or due to there being those who grew up in rural communities. Granny will call the family together for supper, but it’s entirely possible the younger generations want to know what’s for dinner tonight.
However, use of the term “supper” isn’t limited to the South or Midwest. If you grew up in Pennsylvania or another part of the Northeast, your parents or grandparents probably say it too. We hear dinner in movies, on TV, and in advertisements all the time.
Though many people use both words interchangeably, Veit attributes the shift to referring to the evening meal as “dinner” to changes in household structures. Since so many people work outside the home, the midday meal is no longer eaten at home as a large spread, so we have “lunch”.
You may have grown up hearing it one way in your household or town, but now use one word versus the other. Or not. As long as you get to eat, that’s all that matters.
What do you call this meal in your home? Did you call it one thing when you were young and something else now? Are you from a certain era or region where it’s always been called “supper”?