I’m having problems with meal names in the UK. I’ve just learnt that dinner can refer to the afternoon meal, and that tea can refer to an early evening meal.

Is this specific to a certain area in the UK? Do these terms still exist?


9 Answers 9


In the UK, dinner would normally refer to the main meal of the day, irrespective of the time of day at which it is eaten. It could, for example, be eaten around midday ("lunch time"!), early evening or later evening. The discussion at "Lunch" vs. "dinner" vs. "supper" — times and meanings? already adequately covers that subject.

Tea on the other hand can mean several difference things:

  1. It may simply refer to the drink.
  2. It may refer to Afternoon tea, which is a particular style of light meal, traditionally eaten at Tea time.
  3. It may refer to a main meal, traditionally known as High tea and eaten in the early evening.

If, for example, you were asked Would you like some tea?, it would most likely mean Would you like a drink of tea? but could - depending on the time of day and the situtation - refer to Afternoon tea.

Certainly, one would expect a Tea Shop in the UK (as distinct from a Coffee Shop) to serve traditional Afternoon teas, as well as just serving tea to drink.

Traditionally, Afternoon tea would have been observed by middle and upper classes - and especially by the ladies of those classes. It would consist of tea (to drink) served from a china teapot and drunk from delicate china cups, accompanied by delicate savoury or sweet sandwiches (stereotypically, cucumber sandwiches and jam sandwiches), or scones with jam & cream, and followed by cakes (often homemade).

Some people and families continue to have their main Sunday meal at midday - when it is commonly referred to as Sunday lunch despite being the main meal of the day - and may then have Sunday Afternoon tea as described above. Many may do this more during the winter and/or when having visitors, rather than regularly.

High tea is so-called to distinguish it from Afternoon tea. Traditionally, it was a meal eaten in the early evening, and consisting of a hot dish, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam. It has tended to be associated more with Northern England and the working class, although sometimes the meal would have been eaten by children of the middle & upper classes, whose parents would have eaten a more formal dinner later in the evening.

There is more information at the Wikipedia entry for Tea (meal), from where some of the above information has been taken.


I live and work in the North of England, growing up and interacting with mostly local people of similar upbringing, I tended to use "dinner" for noon-time and "tea" for an evening meal.

Having lived abroad, and since moving back, becoming friends with people from all over the country/world, I tend to use "lunch" and "dinner" for midday and evening respectively.

I think context can be important, however. If somebody was to invite me out for "dinner", I would never think they meant midday, yet at work we have the "dinner list", which we use to order food for "lunchtime"!

Speaking of which.. It's my lunchtime, so I'm off to have some dinner!


See the link for a full discussion. Briefly, dinner often describes a midday meal, and tea an evening one in northern England. The words are also used in the same way among certain classes in southern England.

  • Which certain classes? And what do the 'other' classes use instead?
    – Mitch
    Sep 3, 2013 at 12:07
  • 2
    Lower middle and working. For others, the midday meal is lunch, the evening meal dinner and tea is taken at four in the afternoon with cucumber sandwiches. Sep 3, 2013 at 12:32
  • Barrie, does anyone still do that?
    – Tristan
    Sep 3, 2013 at 14:02
  • @Tristan. I do. Sep 3, 2013 at 14:17
  • Wow. I've only known of people having afternoon tea once. It's a quaint thing that a lot of people don't have time for, in the modern world.
    – Tristan
    Sep 3, 2013 at 14:35

This is also true in the US South (or at least where I grew up), where "dinner" is the big meal of the day, whether at noon or in the evening. "Lunch" and "supper" refer to light meals. "Sunday dinner" is almost invariably a mid-day meal. Mark Twain explains this in "Tom Sawyer."

  • 4
    Also in US Northeast. It is therefore important when someone asks you to dinner that you ask what time dinner is to be served. Sep 3, 2013 at 13:41
  • 3
    Things like Christmas and Thanksgiving tend to have their dinners in the early afternoon, whereas a light supper of leftovers is for the evening of that same day. I think this is the same anywhere in North America, and that it is not regional nor “class”-related.
    – tchrist
    Sep 4, 2013 at 3:56

Look, it's very simple. In working class Cornwall where I've always lived, dinner is the midday meal, regardless. Tea is at about 5pm, regardless. Here, only very posh people, or those trying to pass as middle class, use the l-word (which I cannot bring myself to say).


To the person who said dinner is always the main meal of the day - that is WRONG! That is the convention used mostly in the South of England and by a minority of northerners - which is why they usually call their evening meal dinner - an exception being Christmas Dinner which is actually eaten in the afternoon.

When we changed from eating our biggest meal in the afternoon to eating it during the evening, most Northerners retained dinner to mean the meal eaten during the middle of the day ie at dinnertime and ate their tea at teatime. So the meal eaten during the middle of the day is always dinner!

  • 1
    Are you saying the main meal of the day is sometimes or always tea in the North of England?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 17, 2013 at 18:03
  • 1
    I'm uneasy about the assertion that dinner is invariably the main meal of the day too ... although equally I don't think Mike's assertions on behalf of all Northerners should be taken as gospel either.
    – user24964
    Jan 16, 2014 at 11:50
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    There are no absolute answers. Not everyone in the UK uses the same words in the same way.
    – Tristan r
    Jan 16, 2014 at 19:07

For British school-children dinner invariably means the midday meal and has a host of derivative terms: school dinners, dinner money, dinner ladies, etc. Tea is the meal they have in the early evening on arriving home from school (typically around 5pm). [I'm from the South of England but I believe this is universal throughout Britain.] Parents with children of school age would follow this usage, however dinner can also mean a more formal meal, later in the evening, but this would be clear from context.

  • 1
    It's not universal. A lot of people in the UK don't use the word tea to mean a meal. They just use it to mean what is literally tea. The words breakfast, lunch and dinner are sufficient to refer to meals.
    – Tristan r
    Jan 16, 2014 at 17:21
  • ... What about second breakfast? Elevenses? ... Jul 11, 2014 at 22:47
  • @Tristan r: Seriously, one can't reasonably say that those words are sufficient without also saying that the words breakfast, dinner and tea are sufficient to refer to meals. (I'd dispute both claims.) Jul 11, 2014 at 22:51
  • 1
    Edwin Ashworth, I don't see why not. Using the word tea to mean a meal, is not something that every British person does.
    – Tristan r
    Jul 15, 2014 at 21:04

Okay to clarify what I said earlier as some people seem to be struggling to understand me. When we changed to mostly, (but not always), eating our main meal of the day in the evening as opposed to during the middle of the day. Most, but not all northerners in England retained dinner to mean the meal eaten during the middle of the day rather than follow the convention that was more commonly adopted in the South and by a minority of northerners!, which was to keep dinner to mean the main meal of the day!

And to clarify to Mary Lou, you have really not followed what I was saying, so I'll try again, to sum it up we (meaning the majority of northerners, but not all) use the time of day to determine what we call our meal, so our biggest meal will usually be tea but not always, Our Christmas and Sunday Dinners would for example, be eaten during the middle of the day and would be bigger than tea on those days

  • I'm not sure how to interpret "what I said earlier," given that this is your first post on this site.
    – phenry
    Jul 11, 2014 at 22:30
  • @phenry: I wonder whether Michael Chester and Mike are the same person, given that Michael’s answer seems to be a rehash/restatement of Mike’s, and that Mike’s answer to this question is the only one he has ever posted to Stack Exchange, and that “Mike” is an unregistered user. He probably forgot his password or switched e-mail accounts and just created a new Stack Exchange account. Jul 12, 2014 at 0:34

I am from Australia, with my mother's generation from Devon. When living in the UK in the 1970's I was intrigued to hear the cook at the hotel where I was working refer to breakfast as break fast, which is no doubt the original pronunciation. She was from Yorkshire, I think. One of my landladies in Carlisle served us a high tea in the early evening, which included cakes. This was one of the reasons I moved to another establishment catering for students, where the landlady offered a proper meal in the early evening. I cannot remember whether she referred to it as tea or dinner, but it was equivalent to the evening meal called dinner I would have been used to in Australia. One of my friends here in Australia persists in referring to her lunch as 'dinner' and her 'dinner' as tea. The only one I know who does this.

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