Middleagedmum.com: it’s tea time!

On Thursday night, teen daughter and I went late night shopping and decided to eat out. I tweeted what a nice evening it had been and a Scottish friend replied, “Hope you had a nice supper, or what ever the word is.” Technically it was ‘supper’, as it was in a casual location, we shared a starter, had a bowl of pasta each and I had one glass of wine, but like my friend, I have a problem with the term ‘supper’.

It seems where you originate from has some bearing on your terminology around meals. Some may also say class too, but obviously I am far too diplomatic to mention this. As a born and bred Scot who has also lived in Yorkshire, the midlands and London for longer than anywhere else, I am confused of Stoke Newington when it comes to what to call the evening meal.

I have no problem with breakfast, as this is the only meal of the day devoid of terminology confusion or regional nuances. Whether it is eaten formally at the table with servants revealing a single boiled egg under a silver dome, or a bowl of coco pops eaten on the sofa, while watching last nights Corrie, it is simply breakfast – and quite frankly, my favourite meal of the day –  not least because I know what to call it .

Lunch is where it all starts to go horribly wrong. The word lunch implies something light and sandwichy, or possibly quiche based, perhaps with a salad. Hot dishes are not allowed, not even pasta, with the exception of macaroni cheese, which is a lunch dish – just don’t do anything fancy with it. In winter, soup is of course allowed, but at lunch time it must be accompanied by a side dish of something bread or pastry based, otherwise it might be mistaken for a starter, which would be wrong, because this would then turn it into dinner.

Dinner at lunch time is mainly (dare I say it) a northern thing, but as I haven’t lived in the North for a while, I assume it is a dying term, used only by older people or farmers. It originates from the days when manual workers would rise at dawn and return at ‘dinner time’ to expect a full  (possibly three course) meal, to see them through till ‘teatime’. MAD grew up eating ‘dinner’ at lunch time and this would be his main meal of the day, usually involving mince, mash or a chop, followed by a suet or pastry based pudding, with lots and lots of gravy and custard – but never at the same time obvs!

Tea, has many many connotations and gets even more confusing. In Scotland, ‘afternoon tea’ is eaten around three oclock and is a refined afair, mainly taken in Jenners (an Edinburgh dept store) by ladies called Senga and Madge. It involves small sandwiches, scones, possibly cake such as Battenburg, or something with dried fruit, and tea drunk out of china cups and saucers. This of course has been adopted by the young and hip and now involves cup cakes (fariy cakes to our generation) and glasses of proseco, which is clearly very very wrong.

Then there is ‘high tea’, which is more of a meal, eaten in the late afternoon/early evening, but not to be confused with supper. The focus of the meal is savoury, possibly a pie or even fish and chips, but it will be served with tea and bread and butter and rounded off with a big slice of cake, ideally Victoria sponge.

Scottish high tea, does not necessarily indicate the days eating is over – oh no – we Scots know how to eat. The last meal of the day, will be ‘supper’, eaten around 9pm –  possibly watching a detective series set in a Cotswolds village –  and will involve cheese (nothing fancy, Cracker Barrel is perfectly acceptable) Jacobs Cream Crackers, a small selection of Rich Tea, Digestive and Club biscuits, and of course more tea.

In the North of  England, tea can also be a very meagre, often quite depressing, disappointing affair, which includes something out of a tin on toast, washed down with squash or tea, followed by tinned fruit and something pretending to be cream poured on top, for ‘afters’. Try giving that meal to the sushi generation and calling it an evening meal! ‘what’s for tea/dinner/supper mum’? ‘Spaghetti Hoops on toast, followed by tinned peaches and Carnation milk, and tea’ – Yeh right, I’ll get my coat!!

Supper however is something (dare I say it) middle class people from ‘down South’ do. In fact I had never actually heard it used apart from in the Cracker Barrel type way, until I went to college. Would you like to come over for supper, sent me into a panic, as I imagined my fellow fashion students rolling out a trolly laden with Dairly Lea on toast and Penguin biscuits.

Supper is of course something quite glamorous but casual, which is eaten on a big oak table in a huge kitchen, with various friends and family chatting about the important issues of the day. It is a one dish affair, which in itself gives it an intellectual air. There will of course be wine, possibly in a jug or carafe, which will be served tumblers or hand blown wine glasses, picked up in Tuscany. There might also be artisan bread and a side salad – even if the dish doesn’t actually require it – there will always be salad – and water in a jug. There won’t be a starter or a pudding, but there might be chopped up fruit, or a slice of a cake someone made at the weekend, but never a proper pudding as that would turn it into – oh yes you’ve guessed it – dinner.

Dinner in the evening is a far more formal affair involving eating out, or at home but with effort. It means a starter, a thoughtful main course, served in dishes on the table and a pudding. It should involve one, if not more recipes from the popular chef of the moment – ‘it’s really easy, it’s Ottolenghi” – or  ‘it couldnt have been simpler, its from the Donna Hay magazine’.

If you are really dedicated and possibly a little bit elitist, you can explain how long the dish took and how many ingredients had to be sourced from far flung ethnic shops in deepest Hackney, but an air of effortless culinary skill is preferable. The fact that dinner involved a huge supermarket delivery, where half the effortless Ottolenghi ingredients were missing, followed by three emergency dashes to the local shops, a visit to the flower shop and possibly even Ikea for tea lights, must never be revealed.

Dinner is formal affair which must appear casual, but show how cultured, stylish and accomplished you really are. But we all know it really means you have spent the whole sodding day marinating quails while screaming at your family, made them go shopping for saffron – ‘yes they do sell it in Salisbury’s Local, go back and actually look‘ – and cried over a Crème brûlée.

And this dear readers, is what makes us really appreciate being invited round to dinner.

I really must learn to use the term ‘Supper’!!


  • Jude says:

    Hilarious Jane, I’d be very surprised if you haven’t covered everyone’s meal permutations there. It took me back to Sunday evenings in front of the TV when we’d have our ‘special tea’ of thinly cut white bread (crusts off) flattened with rolling pin, spread with tomato ketchup and rolled around a small sausage! The important event was The Onedin Line, and we called it ‘tea’.

  • Jude says:

    Or maybe it was supper…..

  • Jennifer says:

    It’s funny how a subject such as this could spark a conversation amongst friends which would last a good hour (depending on the number of friends) and copious amounts of tea (of the drinking variety) – everyone would have a different story of what each meal of the day is to them. Growing up we ate dinner in the middle of the day, whether it was school dinners or going home from school in the middle of the day for dinner. After school we would usually have our tea at about five o’clock – who knows what my mother cooked for this but the only meal I can remember (probably because it always made me gag) is kidneys …. eaten with what I don’t know. However as we got older, and I suspect because my mother began to work part time, the meal in the middle of the day became lunch and with the exception of Sunday would consist of a sandwich. Dinner would then be eaten at about half five/six o’clock. Supper was a snack at about ten o’clock – cheese and biscuits and milk – before bed! Funny how times change. Nowadays, lunch in the middle of the day would refer to either a sandwich, light lunch or full blown dinner – dinner time is still six or seven o’clock. I do remember being surprised when I first went to Australia back in 1976 because they would invite you to full three course dinner but still refer to it as tea! Not sure if they still do though, I shall have to ask my sister. I do remember Sunday night tea being sandwiches, crisps, slice of cake after coming home from Church and in time to watch The Onedin Line!!

  • Jennifer says:

    Sorry, forgot to say – what a great post this was – love reading your blog every day.

  • louise says:

    this made me hoot …I too had Dinner and tea and supper again those crackers and cheese! I still remember Sunday afternoon teas served on a small table in front of the fire and my Mum used to make special little sandwiches, sandwich spread on toast fingers…all yummy 1970s food! Might have to start this tradition with my daughter – although it may include a different spread!

    the other thing that always makes me smile, is my daughter has lunch at home….but off she goes to school with a packed LUNCH on one day but then has a hot DINNER the next day! !!! we are all confused!

  • Karen says:

    Reading this made me smile – as a northerner living in Surrey. When I was small in the 1960s visiting my gran in Cumbria she always made us a spread at teatime but it was a little odd – started with tinned peaches in their juice accompanied by bread and butter soldiers. This was followed by sandwiches and teacakes (fruit or sweetened plain ones – northerners will know what I mean!) and finally by home made cakes and buns, maybe her own special currant pasty, which I don’t think anyone makes any more but was always part of picnics and lunchboxes when I was little. Not much 5 a day in there but everyone worked hard on the farm so all that fat and carbs must have been for energy.

    Love the blog – read it everyday during my lunchbreak!

  • Sue says:

    This post was helpful.I had clearly not grasped the nuances between the various mealtime labels before.Growing up in Cumbria in the 60s and 70s we always had dinner at midday and tea at 5.30pm.My parents (and my husband’s family) still eat all their meals weirdly early but at least this means they can squeeze in an extra snack at 9pm.We’ve now lived in London and the South for 30 years and we have supper in the evening but call it that because we don’t really want to raise anyone’s expectations too high and it sounds pleasantly Northern and down to earth; I hadn’t realised it was atall grand.Xsue

  • Jane says:

    It seems all our memories involve a LOT of baking. Loving the idea of tinned peaches and bread and butter as a starter!

    Bring back the 70’s I say! J x

  • Susan says:

    I grew up in Aberdeen in the 60s and 70s and it was definitely dinner (the main meal) in the middle of the day and “tea” around 5.30/6pm when you got something small and savoury (eg cheese on toast or a couple of slices of bacon) but only as an appetiser for the bread-and-butter and semi-sweet bakery goods (eg scone/pancake) followed by cake. No low-carb diets around then! My parents still to this day eat like this and panic if they are not fed by 6pm.
    When I moved to Edinburgh as a student I was completely confused by much posher friends talking about “kitchen suppers” and now I find it weird to eat in the evening much before 7.30. I tell my children that I had never heard of or tasted broccoli before I moved down here and considered it a very exotic vegetable in contrast to the peas and carrots I had been reared on! Of course they complain if I ever serve up the same meal two weeks in a row – whilst I always remember that you knew what day it was by the regular menu at dinner-time (roast on Sunday, cold on Monday, mince on Tuesday etc etc)!

  • Jane says:

    you could be talking about my childhood Susan, oh how times have changed! Mince and tatties every week and the tatties were the vegetable, no five a day in those days. Jx

  • It’s quite simple. Lunch is what you have at lunchtime. Dinner is the evening meal*. “Dinner” at lunchtime or “tea” at dinner time (ie in the evening) is only said by common people. Tea is what you have at 4pm. High tea is what you have if you go to Mallory Towers.

    *er… apart from school “dinners”

    That is all.

  • Jane says:

    there speaks a Londoner!!! Thanks for clearing that up Navaz J x

  • just Gai says:

    Abolutely priceless. Had me laughing out loud.
    I was brought up in India by Scots parents. Our school was just across the road and we always came home at midday for ‘dinner’. ‘High tea’ was early. The menu for both meals was pretty much as you describe. We had a mug of Bournvita before bed, on its own, which was never described as supper. The only suppers I’ve come across in Scotland are from a ‘chippy’ – fish suppers, black/white pudding suppers, haggis suppers, chipsteak suppers – even deep fried pizza supper. Virtually anything that can be served with chips!

  • Janes Mum says:

    I love all this talk of something that has intrigued me for the thirty odd years we have lived in” The South”- ie.Oxon,- which, to Scots is south!—another debate a possibility?
    After all this time I have no problem with lunch,and since I retired, have been happy to be a “lady who lunches”,but the evening meal is still a minefield.
    I have come to the conclusion that it depends on who you are talking with -Scot or non-Scot,posh or not so posh!

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