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A friend told me this sounds like a self-help title.  Well, it kind of is.  There are some common themes that I have found run more or less constant through the world’s cuisines.  I find it useful to think of the purpose of the dish before thinking of the specific types of foods I want to add, and looking at eating patterns through the lens of multiple cultures gives us that much more flexibility in thinking of what to prepare for a given meal or event.

The basic elements of the typical main meal of the day:

The Appetizer

Appetizers can range from a bowl of potato chips to a plate of fried calamari to a single broiled scallop with an expensive sauce on a piece of lettuce.  The general idea is that it’s either something to eat while you’re waiting for the main dish to finish cooking, or that it opens your appetite for more things to come.  In some places this is also known as the “First Plate.”

Soups, small pasta portions, small salads, breads and spreads, and tapas make good appetizers.

The Meal

The substantive portion of food.  Also known as the “Second Plate.”  Usually consists of a stew or combination that juxtaposes proteins and complex carbohydrates.  This can be meat and potatoes, poultry and pasta, fish and rice, or a variation on any of these matches.  A vegetable or vegetable medley is often added.  Vegetarian options usually replace the meat protein with a legume, such as lentils, chickpeas, or beans.  For instance, a tagine with chickpeas, fruits and vegetables, and couscous.

New Age Western diets emphasize reducing the carbohydrate element in meals; however, the most successful long-term diets of this sort acknowledge that whole grains–and the carbohydrates that come with them–are a critical part of the human diet.  A well-rounded, home-cooked diet is often significantly useful in losing weight; just the sheer reduction in processing chemicals and preservatives through control of the ingredients makes a great difference.

Other diets such as vegetarianism and veganism remove a great deal of proteins; it is best to consult texts and cookbooks that have been approved by doctors for the best ways to maintain the necessary balance through the use of legumes, fruits and vegetables, and other meat substitutes.

The Dessert

We typically think of desserts as a sweet treat at the end of the meal, to be had with sweet wine, liqueur, coffee, or tea.  Dessert is often light because we are already at least somewhat full.  The texture is sometimes creamy or buttery, sometimes flaky or crunchy, and sometimes fruity and refreshing.

“Other” types of meals, and the People Who Eat Them

Many cultures have “in-between” snacks and small meals to tide everyone over between meals.  In fact, in Morocco it isn’t uncommon to have several snacks and meals throughout the day–a far cry from the traditional 3 meal schedule, and the more contemporary 5 meal per day plan, in the US.  In Spain, a small pastry and coffee is normal for breakfast, with a very large afternoon meal, maybe an evening snack after work (usually tapas) and a smaller meal later in the evening, usually between 10 and 11pm.  In Germany, cereals, or muesli, topped with yogurt is a normal breakfast, as are cold cuts and bread, and a lunch with beer and a heavier dinner.

England, as many Americans know, boasts a huge traditional breakfast with such goodies as fried eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, sausage, bacon (thicker than bacon in the US), black pudding (much like Morcilla sausage in Spain used for tapas and meals), and if you’re close enough to Ireland, white pudding too (like black pudding but without the blood and with more fat).  I know that after a British breakfast I can’t eat too much more for the rest of the day.  But I usually have enough space for an afternoon tea, which usually consists of tea with cream and a pastry or small snack (for instance, toast with butter or the classic crumpet), followed by supper and dinner (which in the US are two words for the same thing).

Obviously, there are many types of meals, and half the fun is learning about them.  But basically, one way of thinking of the typical substantive meal is as a formula:


Of course, there are many variations on this formula, depending on cultural preferences and regional availability.  But this is the most common combination of food categories and an easy way to make pairings in your head when you’re just throwing something together from what you have or thinking of what you need to restock in your pantry as backup.

Why we should care about food patterns and the role of The Meal

It is interesting to think of how meals are incorporated into the daily routines of different cultures; it gives us a chance to step back from our own reality and rethink the way we eat.  One thing does seem to remain constant: meals, big or small, are opportunities for social gatherings and allow for communication and comradery, if we utilize them as such.  But so often, we eat alone, quickly, without thinking about where our food came from or even what is in the food we are eating.  Maybe not every meal can be a big deal, but making time for friends and family and taking time to prepare our meals, at least in my opinion, adds an important social dimension to our daily lives.  It’s worth making the time!

In any case, it is important to have a basic idea of how these meals fit together, in order to take them apart, ingredient by ingredient, and put them back together again in perhaps unexpected ways.  The interchangeability of many ingredients means you could have a sack of apples that could, in theory, be used for the appetizer, the meal, the snack, or the dessert–or even all four if you choose.  This is especially helpful if you’re working with limited ingredients and don’t have time to run to the store for more.  Half the fun of cooking is finding new ways to prepare old favorites.

Theory in Practice: an Example

Very few people can start to put strokes to canvas before knowing what they want to paint.  Let’s say you open your pantry to make something and you find a sack of potatoes, one onion, a bunch of radishes, and some carrots.  You turn to the fridge and you have only sour cream, cream, butter, two chicken breasts and a little cheddar cheese.  Some lemons sit nearby.  You have your usual backdrop of sugar, flour, corn starch, salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, and maybe some bread crumbs and graham crackers too.  If you don’t already have an idea what kind of food you are trying to make, if you can’t think of whether it is a savory snack, a sweet treat, a full meal–it will be nearly impossible to make the ingredients you have work for you.  This is not to say that you have to have the whole recipe set out in front of you–that’s absolutely not the case, because that would be the opposite of  “breaking free” of the rules and playing with new ideas.  You can always look up recipes, but it’s always more of a hassle to be prepared with everything you need to follow them exactly than it is to add or subtract something and make it your own.  Not having the time to go back out to the store and buy everything necessary for a given recipe is often what deters people from making something quickly from scratch and ordering takeout instead.  This is easily overcome with a well stocked kitchen and a little creativity!

Continuing with the example with the ingredients noted above.  If it is an afternoon snack you seek, you may wish to make some version of Kalter Kartoffelsalat (German cold potato salad); if it is nighttime, maybe a stew or a carrot-radish-onion salad as an appetizer to a meal of lemon cream broiled chicken breast and mashed potatoes or potaoes au gratin.  If you only want something light and sweet, you could make a lemon cup with whipped cream and crumbled cookie topping (or, alternatively, lemon pie).  There are almost always several options using the same ingredients.  And it’s fun to try to think of all of them!

Note: The recipes to the meal ideas above coming soon!

3 Responses to “Global Eating Patterns and You”

  1. jenny says:

    Your comment about the single scallop made me laugh. Last October I stayed at the Four Seasons on Grand Exuma Island with my friend. The only reason we could stay at a hotel that posh is because she worked for the Four Seasons Las Vegas so we didn’t have to pay. Anyway, the GM wanted me to critique the food I ate ( he knew I was food & beverage from the Chicago Four Seasons – many years ago). My friend critiqued the spa services (that’s her dept.) So, after being served my lone scallop (and it wasn’t that big) as an appetizer, I argued that it was merely an amuse bouche, as it was so bloody small, LOL. ok, that was a long explanation.

  2. ssilva2010 says:

    That’s so funny Jenny! That comment actually came from my friend’s appetizer at a restaurant (adjoined to a random hotel) in Venice about two weeks ago. She had been craving scallops the whole week and was so excited to see it on the menu. I think she was just going to order it as her meal actually… but then she saw this lone scallop, complete with roe, making its way to our table, and we just started laughing. Apparently it was delicious and not incredibly small (she was able to slice it a couple of times), but really not enough to charge like 12 euros for either. hehe Fancy appetizers really crack me up, sometimes I think they are meant more to look at than to eat.

  3. […] my way through the continents of the world has radically changed and shaped my view of food and how food patterns can be applied with almost any set of ingredients to create a satisfying variety of meals. Whether you’re pairing papaya with pineapple (as is […]

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