What Is A 'Continental Breakfast' Actually?

While breakfast might not technically be the most important meal of the day — this was an idea hyped by breakfast food companies back in the late 19th century — it is a good idea to start your morning with some fuel to get you up and at 'em. Especially if it's free. Many hotels provide guests with a complimentary morning meal, and they often use the term continental breakfast when describing this perk. But what we consider continental breakfast today, at least in the United States, is a far cry from what it originally meant.


Back at the turn of the 19th century, when the continental breakfast emerged in America, it was a light meal consisting of coffee and a roll. As travel became more commonplace and Europeans began to visit the U.S. in droves, American hotels started catering to these customers who preferred lighter fare. Although Merriam-Webster still defines continental breakfast as "a light breakfast (as of rolls... and coffee)," in hotel parlance these days it refers to a breakfast buffet where guests are free to chow down on a wide range of food options like muffins, fresh fruit, and waffles. So how did the continental breakfast go from a light European meal to a full-on buffet?

Continental first meant European, and then it meant lots of choices

The British used the term continental when referring to things related to the European mainland, including their lighter morning meals, which the British called a continental breakfast. The Americans also picked up on this term. And like the Brits, they preferred a heartier breakfast. In 1896, a volume of "The Sanitarian" quoted a complaint from the American magazine Harper's Weekly about the rise of the "continental breakfast" supplanting the traditional fare of "great beef steaks, hot rolls, buckwheat cakes, omelets ... even pie." The author went on to grouse that "pie was first banished, and the other heavy articles gradually followed it into exile, and breakfast is shorn of its glories."


The lighter version of the continental breakfast ruled for a good part of the 20th century. Then in the 1950s, the rise of restaurants serving a large range of European, often French, dishes — or an American approximation of them — became popular. At some point "continental" became a byword for the wide variety of menu items these restaurants offered rather than the origin of the food. And so today, the word continental, when referring to breakfast, continues to convey an expansive array of choices rather than anything resembling a light European morning meal.

The continental breakfast has gone from simple fare to bountiful buffet

Today, while you can still opt for coffee and a breakfast roll, your hotel continental breakfast usually comes with a whole lot more. Some even include hot food items like bacon and eggs. That said, bacon and eggs are probably things you shouldn't eat at your hotel's breakfast buffet, since the eggs are typically powdered and the meat may have been sitting around in a freezer for months.


That still leaves plenty of other breakfast options like fresh fruit, single-serve yogurt, and baked goods. Ironically, the Harper's Weekly complaint from 1896 about a lack of hearty breakfast fare due to the rise in the continental breakfast has come full circle. The old continental breakfast has been replaced by a veritable cornucopia of food choices. And the next time you find yourself in the buffet line be sure to employ the correct hotel breakfast buffet etiquette, like not overfilling your plate or cutting in line.