Splintering the three-meals-a-day norm might at first feel unnatural, but in the long arc of human history, that eating schedule is both extremely recent and born almost entirely of social convenience. According to Amy Bentley, a food historian at NYU, eating three meals a day is not something we do because of nutritional science or a natural human inclination. Instead, it’s largely a consequence of industrialization, which formalized the workday and drew much of the population away from home on a regular basis. Preindustrial America was more rural and agrarian, and people worked during daylight hours, pausing midmorning and later in the afternoon. “It was more like a two-meal kind of schedule that was based on outdoor physical labor and farm labor, and those meals tended to be quite big,” Bentley told me.
Over time, more and more Americans were drawn into daily life outside the home—more kids were sent to school, and housewives and domestic workers, whose presence was once common in middle-class American homes, joined the formal labor market. Industrialized food processing began to provide an array of products marketed as quick-and-easy breakfast foods—products that had never previously existed but whose ubiquity accelerated after World War II. Industrialized breakfasts such as cornflakes and instant oatmeal make for meals that are generally small and nutritionally hollow, which meant that people then needed to eat again during the day before commuting home for a later dinner, which was—and often still is—important for its role in family social life.
You can probably see the fault lines already. Of course vanishing commutes, remote schooling, and the flexibility to make a sandwich during a conference call would change how people eat.