Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Daily Life: Meals

The information below is general. People in different areas ate different types of meals depending on what was most convenient and affordable for that area.


Food was an integral part of the peasant lifestyle. Snacks and meals were spaced every couple of hours throughout the day. Peasants made their meals as heavy and full of calories as possible in order to sustain themselves through a hard day of labor. Poor families, however, didn’t always have high-calorie food items such as meat available. To maintain their energy, peasant families ate frequently. Breakfast began with the rising of the sun, sometimes at 5 a.m. Women may have served potatoes and bacon for this morning meal. The family ate another meal around 8 a.m., often consisting of hard rye or black bread (finer grain breads were reserved for special occasions), perhaps with bacon again.

Lunch, served around noon and often in the fields, was the biggest meal of the day. In earlier times, it was prepared in one dish. Peasant women used meat (if available), potatoes, vegetables from the garden (particularly cabbage), or beans in this dish. Other meals took place at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., again using bread, bacon or ham, potatoes, and vegetables from the garden. In Scandinavia, meals consisted of barley porridge or some kind of soup, as well as sausage, cheese, or sour dough bread spread with pork fat. People who lived near the coast ate fish frequently as well.

Food Preparation

Preparing the family meals was the job of women, done by the women head of household with the help of her daughters. Landed peasants also relied on help from maidservants to prepare the meals.

Women in poor families owned little kitchenware. The family probably ate from one dish and had to do their baking in a community oven. Women in more comfortable peasant homes had a wide variety of kitchen tools. One of my Swedish ancestor’s wills described her kitchen possessions which included a heavy iron-tiled stove, a cauldron, various pots and pans made of iron or copper – and one bronze frying pan, fourteen pewter plates, several wooden jugs, and various baskets, bins, and tubs for storage. They also owned a still to produce their own home-brewed alcohol.

Although cooking took place in the kitchen, meals were often eaten in a multi-purpose room. Often, everyone had a designated place, the seating arrangement demonstrating the prevailing social order. The older daughters and maidservants took their meals standing in order to be free to serve those at the table. Children and lower-ranking help remained silent throughout the meal.