“A square meal a day” keeps the doctor away. Or so they should say.
We’re told that our meals should be square and then we’ll be the epitome of health.
But why “square”? Why not “rectangular” or “heart-shaped”?
The jury’s out on this one. The phrase probably comes from the use of “square” as meaning “fair and square”, or honest and straightforward. Who doesn’t want an honest, satisfying meal?
One of the earliest appearances of the phrase was in a U.S. newspaper in 1856:
“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”
The rumors surrounding the term are more entertaining than its actual origin.
- One such tale suggests that sailors used to eat off of square plates. The plates weren’t often filled all the way, but sometimes they would receive a large enough meal to fill the whole plate, making it a literal square meal. The Royal Navy did in fact serve meals on square plates, but the much later appearance of the phrase makes it unlikely that the Navy was the origin.
- Another tale of medieval Britain suggests a square dinner plate with a bowl carved out in the middle to hold a serving of stew. Travelers would take this square with them in case they ran into some friendly neighborhood stew-cookers.
- Yet another story suggests that the rigid way soldiers sat in the U.S. Military during meals formed a square shape, making a visit to the mess hall a square meal.
None of these tales are likely true, since “square meal” only showed up mid-19th century. But they make for good stories.
An 1865 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote about a mining town and said, “Says the proprieter of a small shanty, in letters that send a thrill of astonishment through your brain: ‘LOOK HERE! For fifty cents you CAN GET A GOOD SQUARE MEAL at the HOWLING WILDERNESS SALOON!”
The writer needed to explain that this meant a “substantial repast” of sustenance. Clearly “square meal” needed a little time to become familiar.