Do you call your evening meal dinner? Do you sometimes eat supper too? Can you eat dinner in the middle of the day?
In most parts of the English-speaking world there are three or four words for the main meals of the day, and they are all used interchangeably, the most confusing of which are supper and dinner.
What Time Is Supper vs Dinner?
Where your family comes from will most likely determine whether you always eat dinner in the evening, or if you occasionally enjoy a light supper too.
Quite clearly dinner is the most common term for, well, dinner. But there are still people in some parts of the world (from vicarages in Oxford to farms in Kentucky and Virginia) who refer to their evening meal as supper, and this is where the confusion lies.
In this article, we’ll set out the difference between the two words, their historical usage, and how they are used today in different parts of the world.
What's the Difference between Dinner and Supper?
Whilst the terms supper and dinner can both be used synonymously for the main meal of the day, there are clear differences between the two words.
Dinner is a heavy, full meal that is nearly always eaten in the evening, and which can be eaten both at home or out in a restaurant.
Supper is a lighter, more informal meal and is eaten at home, also usually in the evening. It is normally eaten to complement a larger meal that was eaten earlier in the day.
Here are some example sentences using "dinner" and "supper":
- The one good thing about being stuck at home is that we all sit down to dinner together in the evening.
- After that massive meal in town, we decided just to have a light supper before bed.
That’s the rule of thumb.
However, there are certain parts of the world where there are exceptions to this rule, where generations of families have maintained the original, historic usage of the terms supper and dinner.
Which Is Correct, Dinner or Supper?
Nowadays, dinner is the main meal of the day and most cultures serve it in the evening time. Lunch has taken over at lunchtime and dinner at dinnertime. Supper began seriously decreasing in use from the early 1900s just as lunch became more popular.
The term supper is sometimes used synonymously with dinner as an evening meal but it tends to refer to a light meal often in the afternoon or evening. There are, of course, regional differences around the world (which we will get to in a minute) but if you had to generalize, the differences would be as follows:
Dinner is a main meal, whilst supper is always more of a soup or snack-style meal
Dinner is heavy, supper is light
Dinner is more formal, supper is informal
In the few areas where dinner is served at lunchtime, supper will be in the evening.
When to Use Dinner
Dinner is the largest, most formal meal of the day, usually eaten in the evening. It can refer to a family dinner, dining out in a restaurant, eating at a formal evening event, or sitting in front of the TV for a TV dinner.
In one or two areas of the US and Canada it is occasionally used to refer to the midday meal, but this meaning has mostly died out.
Here are some examples of when to use the word dinner:
Would you like to have dinner with me?
She’s giving a speech at the annual company dinner this year.
Shall we have dinner in front of the TV?
We’re meeting George and Amal for dinner at 9.
When to Use Supper
Supper has always referred to a lighter meal, usually eaten in the evening after a heavy lunch.
It is a much more informal meal and would be eaten at home rather than dining out (although in those regions where supper is still used it can describe an event to raise funds, such as a church supper.)
In a few parts of the world it is still used to refer to a main meal, but this is less and less common now. Examples of when to use the word supper include:
Why don’t you come over for a light supper on Thursday?
After that massive roast I think we’ll all just have leftovers for supper.
He only ate cheese and biscuits for supper.
We usually have dinner at 4 p.m. and a light supper before bed.
Who Says Supper Instead of Dinner?
In this section, it is worth briefly mentioning regional variations in the use of the word supper (particularly for those of you who write about food as it’s important to know the different meanings in other countries.)
Top Tip: If writing for an American audience from the UK (or vice versa), you can set ProWritingAid to recognize American spelling and also use ProWritingAid's consistency check to ensure you catch any mistakes.
Do American Southerners Say Supper or Dinner?
Across the US, many people use dinner and supper interchangeably for the meal eaten in the evening.
However, there are a few remaining places, mostly in the Midwest and South, where supper is still the favoured term for the evening meal.
In Texas you’ll find about half the people referring to lunch / dinner and the other half calling it dinner / supper.
In Ohio there are still a large number of people who call their midday meal lunch and then say supper for an evening meal, but save dinner for a formal or larger meal.
Is Supper a Canadian Term?
In many areas of Canada the word supper is used as much as dinner for evening meals.
Only in British Columbia and Ontario is dinner the main word for the evening meal. In Saskatchewan and other areas of Atlantic Canada supper is still the main meal and dinner is served at noon!
Do People in England Say Supper or Dinner?
When it comes to supper and dinner in the UK, things get even more complicated. Typically for the UK, the linguistic choice of how someone refers to their evening meal comes with all kinds of class baggage.
In England it isn’t just a battle between supper and dinner as a third, equally confusing interloper joins the party—tea. Not the tea that you serve in a cup, but tea that describes an evening meal!
Supper vs Dinner vs Tea
In England you will hear the evening meal referred to as tea almost as much as you will hear it called dinner. If you had to generalize you would say that in England, dinner is a fancier word than tea, and supper is the fanciest of the lot!
Indeed, so fascinating are the linguistic battles in the UK (don’t mention the scone wars) that polling companies like to get involved.
In 2018 YouGov actually surveyed 42,000 people across England to find out what they called their evening meal: 57% called it dinner, 38% called it tea, and only 5% called it supper.
Geographically, most people in the south of England called it dinner, whereas in the Midlands and the north it was more likely to be called tea. Supper was only used in a few isolated areas, and mostly by those in higher income brackets.
When Did Mealtime Titles Change?
The word dinner has been used for the biggest meal of the day for hundreds of years (all the way back to the 13th century in England) and was always served around noontime.
This noontime dinner made sense for hundreds of years because of the agrarian economy and the need for farmers to be able to fuel themselves and their families halfway through the day.
People would eat this large meal in the middle of the day and then eat a smaller, lighter evening meal after work. This would have been something like broth or soup that had been simmering in the pot.
Consequently, the term dinner is from the Anglo-French verb disner, which translates as to dine, whilst the word supper evolved from another Anglo-French verb, souper which translates as to sup.
It is easy then to see how the term for this light, evening meal evolved into supper from the old French word souper. This way of eating became the norm not just for workers in England, but across the world, from the UK to France, and later to North America.
It was not unique to workers either. The aristocracy also ate at these hours, and we know, for example, that in the 17th century Louis XIV had dinner at noon and supper as the last meal of the day.
In the 18th century the English aristocracy would have dinner at noon but often eat supper as late as 1 a.m., depending on the evening’s entertainment.
Gradually, however, this noontime dinner shifted later, as people’s working lives also shifted with the rise of industrialisation. People in cities worked in factories and away from their homes and could not return to their home for a main meal at noon.
Dinner ended up being moved to the evening meal. However, the change in mealtime was a lot quicker than the change in name.
By the mid-19th century Dickens was still referring to "dinner at half-past one and supper at half-past nine" and inventing the "Christmas dinner" in A Christmas Carol, and this usage persisted well into the 20th century.
Supper vs Dinner in the US
The same pattern was followed in the US as Americans regularly ate their largest meal at lunchtime. Noontime dinner had been the tradition ever since the first settlers arrived, with large swathes of the country based around agrarian society and the midday meal being the most important.
Consequently, in the farming communities in the southern and midwestern states, dinner remained the main midday meal right up to 20th century.
Just like in the UK, when Americans moved from the farms to factories and offices, meals changed accordingly. Dinner moved to later in the day. The change of meaning of the word dinner was more gradual.
In the Second World War, US rations were split into "breakfast, dinner, and supper".
At the end of the war in 1945, Etiquette by Emily Post defined dinner as being eaten "either at midday or in the evening". By 1960 the same book called the noontime meal "lunch".
Are Dinner and Supper the Same Thing?
In conclusion then, there are still a few remaining parts of the English-speaking world where supper and dinner might be used interchangeably to mean the same thing—the main evening meal.
However, this is happening less and less frequently now. Additionally, parts of America and Canada still serve dinner at lunchtime and supper remains the sole evening meal, but this, too, is decreasing every year.
In most areas the generally accepted usage—and the guiding rule to keep in mind—is that dinner is the main meal and supper is a lighter meal later in the evening. Dinner is more formal, whilst supper is informal—though dinner can be informal too if served on a tray in front of the TV.
If you’re inviting friends around to eat, call it dinner and everyone will understand what you mean. Just don’t call it a dinner party, as your friends will run a mile!