What is a Square Meal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.”

It is generally assumed that a square meal has lean protein and vegetables.
It is generally assumed that a square meal has lean protein and vegetables.

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.”

A balanced breakfast is an example of a square meal.
A balanced breakfast is an example of a square meal.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Unfortunately that is a mistake in that edition. In an earlier print of the story the meal is referred to as a "spare" meal meaning meager or frugal, which makes sense in that context.

Search online for that story in: The Spirit of the English magazines, Volume 9




I've come across an earlier usage than the restaurant advertisement cited above.

In a collection of short stories titled "Great British Tales of Terror: Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance 1765-1840," edited by Peter Haining and published in paperback by Penguin Books, England, in 1973; is a story by William Child Green. The story is "Secrets of Cabalism or Ravenstone and Alice of Huntingdon."

The editor’s introduction to this story states that it was "published anonymously in a Christmas annual, circa 1819."

The sixth paragraph has the following line: "The secretary found him on his knees, as his custom was, eating his square meal in that humble posture..."

This is referring to a prisoner’s meal, which I suspect would be anything but "filling, satisfying, and usually tasty."

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