The term “square meal” is a piece of slang which dates back to 1800s America. It refers to a large, substantial meal which is filling, satisfying, and usually tasty as well. It is also usually implied that a square meal is nutritionally balanced and healthy, though not always. Since balanced meals are generally viewed as vital for human health and happiness, it is not unusual to hear terms like “he looks like he needs a square meal.”
The origins of slang terms can often be fascinating to trace, not least because they are usually clouded by folk etymology and general foolishness. Many folk etymologies for the phrase suggest that it is somehow related to square plates, when this is not, in fact, the case. In this instance, the meal is “square” in the sense of “honest” or “proper,” a usage which dates back to at least the 1600s. This puts square meals in the same family as square deals and “fair and square.”
The first written instance of “square meal” appears to have emerged in the mid-1800s, to advertise a Gold Rush era restaurant in the American West. The author of the advertisement actually clarified the term, specifying that it meant a wholesome and balanced meal, which suggests that the slang term may not have been used colloquially, and that the author may have in fact invented it. Since then, the term has spread to other regions of the United States and some other English speaking nations as well, although it continues to be closely associated with Western culture.
The contents of a square meal are open to debate. Nutritional guidelines and standards have certainly evolved from the days when “pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles,” in the words of a 19th century advertiser, were considered a square meal. It is generally assumed that a square meal has a healthy serving of vegetables, associated with a lean protein and a whole grain starch and ideally flavored with something interesting as well. Most nutritional guidelines also recommend low amounts of fat and heavily processed foods in a balanced diet.
Getting a square meal is of particular concern for developing children and athletes, since their nutritional needs are more demanding than the average population. Fortunately, in most of the developed world, access to food supplies is relatively easy, allowing people to eat well on a regular basis. Unfortunately for some people in the developing world, a square meal is a more challenging proposition.