The hours for taking meals which are commonly selected are those which are best adapted to the varying needs of the system at different times in the day, and experience teaches that they must be varied considerably with occupation. In the larger American cities where commerce is active, and many men are subjected during the day to excitement, hurry, and strain, an evening dinner hour often best meets the needs of the system as well as the requirements of personal convenience. In the rural districts, however, and in many countries where life is less hurried and active than under the conditions of the extraordinarily rapid growth and development of the United States, it is found that taking the heaviest meal at noon agrees better with the wants of most persons. The hours for infant feeding are described under the heading Infant Feeding.

Children should always dine early in the day. There are in general three systems for adults in regard to the number of meals and hours for taking them which are in common use, in which two, three, and four meals, respectively, are eaten in the twenty-four hours.

The first system, which is in vogue in France and, to a less extent, elsewhere, is that of eating but two substantial meals a day. On first rising in the morning, a cup of hot coffee or chocolate is taken with a roll or some other simple form of bread. This enables two or three hours of moderate work to be accomplished before the first real meal, which is a breakfast eaten in the late morning, usually at or before twelve o'clock. This meal is substantial, consisting of several courses of solid food. The second meal, which is the dinner, is usually eaten between six and seven o'clock. This system is in use among workingmen as well as with the leisure classes, and is found well adapted to their habits of life. Americans travelling abroad, who are accustomed to eat a heavier meal for breakfast, often find some difficulty in adapting themselves to the French custom, but many learn to like it, and as the travelling public are commonly for the time being, a leisure class, it is less difficult to adapt themselves to new customs abroad than to introduce them at home.

The Germans also usually take a cup of coffee or other light beverage and a roll or Butter-brod soon after rising, but they dine very early, often at half-past twelve, taking a heavy, deliberate meal at this hour, which they are apt to follow with beer and tobacco. Their offices and banks open early, and are often closed from noon until three o'clock, when they are reopened until five, whereas in most cities in this country the most active business hours are in the middle of the day, and it would be practically impossible for many men to give up two or three hours at this time to eating and social converse. The Germans usually take a supper with meat at a somewhat late hour - between half-past seven and eight o'clock. In many German towns it is customary to open the theatres as early as six o'clock, so that the performance is closed in time for a supper at nine. The habit of eating between meals and of taking occasional light lunches in the afternoon seems to be more prevalent there than elsewhere.

In England it is a very common custom for the better classes to breakfast at eight or nine o'clock, lunch or dine between one and two, take a cup of tea and perhaps a biscuit at four or five, and dine or sup at eight o'clock.

In the United States, where there are theoretically no class distinctions, they practically do exist very strikingly in regard to the hours for taking meals, and the hard-working labouring class, whether employed in the city or country, almost universally dine at noon. It is mainly the mercantile and professional classes in large cities who dine between 6 and 7 p. m., while the more fashionable or leisure classes dine even later - sometimes at eight o'clock. Most of the latter, however, on going to the country for a summer holiday, are accustomed to reverse their habits and dine at the usual country hour - at one o'clock, taking supper at half-past six or seven. In the Southern cities it is quite common to dine in the neighbourhood of half-past two or three o'clock. Many persons in cities who habitually dine late on week days from long-continued custom, on Sundays dine shortly after noon, taking supper in the evening. This is an old custom handed down from days in which less exacting occupations favoured noon dining throughout the week, but due in part also to economical reasons, and a desire to make the work for servants as light as possible on Sunday afternoon.

While those in good health with active digestion suffer no inconvenience from thus changing the hour for meals on one day in the week, there are others who find that it disagrees with them and disturbs their digestion. A hearty meal at noon following a very light breakfast, consisting of a roll and cup of coffee or tea, may be perfectly digested for years, yet reversing the order of the meals may entirely disorder the digestion.

For professional and other classes of men in the United States who are not occupied in physical labour or outdoor pursuits the following system is found to possess decided advantages: A breakfast is taken soon after rising, at half-past seven to half-past eight, which consists of fresh fruit, porridge or oatmeal, or other varieties of cereals, poached eggs or omelet, and a little bacon or fresh or salt fish, bread and butter, tea or coffee. The lunch, eaten between one and two o'clock, may consist of a lean chop, or a piece of cold ham, or a slice of rare beef with some stewed or baked potatoes, with a simple lettuce salad, or perhaps a little cheese for dessert. If a heavy meal is taken at this hour by persons unaccustomed to it, and who have had a breakfast of solid food, they often feel dull and sleepy for an hour or two thereafter, and are consequently incapacitated from active mental exercise. The dinner should be from half-past six to half-past seven, after the principal labours of the day are over, and at an hour early enough to allow of the complete digestion of the heaviest meal of the day before retiring.

This may consist of several courses, which are conventionally arranged in the order which appears to be most rational and physiological - namely, soup, fish or an entree, a steak or joint with potatoes and one or two fresh vegetables, a salad, and a light pudding or cooked fruit.

A clear soup at the commencement of a meal does not interfere with digestion, but favours it. The fluid, if taken in a quantity not exceeding eight or ten ounces, is, for the greater part, promptly absorbed in the stomach, and its warmth and the sustenance it contains act favourably upon the circulation, stimulate the secretion of gastric juice, and satisfy temporarily the cravings of hunger which are not met by the taking of solid food until after it has been digested for some time. The fish or entree is then eaten in the earlier stage of gastric secretion when the gastric juice has not yet attained its full strength and quantity. This is followed by the eating of meat, which is destined to remain in the stomach for several hours, and requires all the energies of its digestive processes. The saccharine or farinaceous food, which does not undergo digestion in the stomach, is taken towards the end of the meal, when it remains a less time in the stomach than animal food.

The discussion of more elaborate dinners, consisting, as they do very often, of a dozen or more separate courses, would be out of place in this volume. Such dinners can only be indulged in for any length of time by those whose digestion is robust and whose leisure and comparative freedom from care and anxiety allow them to devote abundant time and physical energy to their meals and to secure sufficient holidays and trips to noted spas to enable them to periodically relieve the digestive system of the strain put upon it. Persons who rise late and dine early should eat but a small breakfast and a hearty supper. If the noon dinner is replaced by a light luncheon, a substantial breakfast should be eaten.

Undoubtedly it is usually best to so order one's occupation that neither severe mental nor physical labour need be undertaken immediately after eating. Yet much depends upon the age and strength of the individual.

At one of the largest colleges for girls in New England the pupils dine at one o'clock, and many of them commence to study immediately thereafter, or at 2 p. m.; yet cases of indigestion are comparatively infrequent among them; and the ordinary day labourer begins his work again without detriment almost immediately after a hearty noon meal, and continues it while gastric and intestinal digestion are still necessarily incompleted.

Invalids often require modification in the accustomed hours for meals, and Balfour says that "all invalids should have their important meal in the middle of the day".

Between four and five hours, on the average, must be regarded as necessary for complete digestion of a mixed meal.

The intervals between meals should be regulated with reference to individual peculiarities. As a general rule, convalescents or persons with feeble digestive powers and poor appetites, who are unable to eat a sufficient quantity of food at any one meal, should be fed more frequently, perhaps four or five times - that is, in addition to three ordinary meals, they should have light lunches in the middle of the forenoon and afternoon, or possibly just before retiring. The latter is particularly to be recommended, for if the food be light and nutritious, such as a bowl of gruel and a glass of hot milk, or a cup of cocoa with a biscuit, and possibly a glass of beer, sleep is not interfered with, but is promoted, and the system is saved from too long an interval of starvation between the hours of dinner or supper and breakfast. On the other hand, dyspeptics and patients with gastric catarrh may find it desirable to allow an interval of fully seven hours between their meals, in order to give abundant time for the digestion of one meal before that of the next is undertaken, and they should stop eating short of repletion.

There are others whose digestion is good, but constitutionally slow, and they are better with intervals of at least six hours between their meals; and there are some people who keep in better health on only two meals a day, and occasionally, although it must be regarded as an eccentricity, except in the case of some savages and the Eskimos (see p. 319), there are persons who thrive upon but one meal a day.

The monks of La Trappe eat but one meal daily, as a religious custom, at which they consume so much food that they become dull and lethargic for several hours afterwards (Combe).

Many savages, like the Hottentots, have no regular times for eating, but, like the carnivores, take their food whenever and however they can best obtain it.

The business or professional man when overworked sometimes forms the habit of omitting his noon luncheon; but this custom, although it may benefit some forms of dyspepsia, is a pernicious one in the majority of instances if long continued.