The obvious answer is "a meal which is hot", but when I see this phrase it often seems as if there is a deeper meaning present, as if there is some major distinction between hot meals and other meals (cold meals? lukewarm meals?).

E.g. (from the Wikipedia article "Lunch"):

In Finland, lunch is a full hot meal, ...

In Romania, lunch (prânz in Romanian) is the main hot meal of the day.

These usages seem to use "hot meal" as carrying a substantial quality, that the temperature of the food involved is somehow associated with its quantity or ability to satiate hunger. Is there some such association?

What does "hot meal" mean?

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    1. The meaning, technically, is just literal: "a meal that is hot" as you correctly noted. 2. Hot meal does possess certain very significant qualities because it is prepared and served hot before it cools. So, yes, there is a direct association. 3. From 1 & 2, usage has given hot meal an idiomatic meaning of such a meal, eaten once or twice a day, in contrast to the other kinds of food.
    – Kris
    Apr 26, 2015 at 14:54
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    @Kris: How do you explain the word "full" in "full hot meal"? There is something in addition to its temperature that defines "hot meal". Do you consider a grilled-cheese sandwich a "hot meal"? It can be so hot that it burns your mouth... How about a piece of pizza at a pizzeria serving customers at a sidewalk window? It's "served hot before it cools".
    – Tim
    Apr 26, 2015 at 15:42
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    Generally, folks in the US would regard a hamburger in a wrapper or a slice of pizza on a paper plate to be a sort of "meh" hot meal. Yes, technically hot, but not what they meant, and apt to arouse irritation if they had been promised a "hot meal".
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:37
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    I don't know why this is being closevoted - the only onelook.com match is from the very unreliable Urban Dictionary. Apr 27, 2015 at 0:25

5 Answers 5


A hot meal is one that is prepared and cooked, as distinct from a sandwich, say, or some cheese with a piece of fruit.

In some countries, it has been the custom to set aside a couple of hours in the middle of the day for the mid-day meal, which allows the mid-day meal to be a full meal rather than something quickly prepared, requiring no cooking, that could be fit into a relatively brief "lunch hour".

P.S. For attestation that "hot meal" has the long-established meaning I've said it has and is not a mere "slang" term as @Kris alleges (see comment below, if @Kris has not already eaten it) see Meals in Science and Practice: Interdisciplinary Research and Business ... (H L Meiselman, ed.)

See also Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia ( Ken Albala, ed).

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    also note that in most of these countries and several others a 'hot meal' is perceived as inherently superior to a cold one. Apr 26, 2015 at 17:36
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    Yes, the important thing about a "hot meal" is that it is not prepared ahead of time, unlike a "brown-bag", "sack lunch", "picnic", or "lunch box". Apr 26, 2015 at 18:58

In the term "hot meal", the part "hot" does not refer to temperature per se, but to the fact that the meal is prepared immediately prior to being served (usually involving cooking, but many other preparation techniques can be involved). If you left your packed lunch in a car parked in the sun, it might be hot by the time you get to eat it, but it still wouldn't be considered a hot meal. The quantitative aspect is covered by the "meal" part, as a meal is supposed to satiate for many hours; a quick bite that is cooked/fried might be called a hot snack instead.

As with many notions, the limits of what would be considered a "hot meal" are not sharp; I'm not sure whether accompanying sandwiches by a bowl of (hot) soup would turn lunch into a proper hot meal, though it is not completely cold either.

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    I agree with the basis. Just because a meal is hot doesn't qualify it for the "hot meal" moniker, depending on why it is hot. However, I would also say that all foods that do qualify as a "hot meal" are hot. I can't think of anything that would be served cold that is considered "a hot meal".
    – Doc
    Apr 27, 2015 at 6:10

Answering my own question 8 years later, after learning some more about the world and history.

That I had to even ask the title question (What is a hot meal?) belies that the convenience of modern food processing techniques has allowed some of us to never quite grasp the historically main point of cooking: It makes food safe to eat (and also tastier).

In a gross oversimplification of the history of food preservation and preparation: if you wanted safely cooked food throughout most of history, you had to cook it right there in front of you, because there wasn't canning or jarring available.

The smell (and by extension taste, since smell is a big part of perceived taste) of food comes a from the volatile (gassing off) compounds in the food, and things get more volatile at higher temperatures, full stop. Therefore hotter food will in general be more flavorful.

Also, proteins are converted by heat to other proteins. This is associated with improvements in flavor and texture, although overcooking is possible.

Furthermore, the fact that cooking for one person is inconvenient and inefficient leads to the phenomenon of communal eating, where one or several cooks prepares food for a spouse, a handful of friends, or hundreds of guests. Thus the eating of hot food has an inherent association with social gatherings.


As has already been pointed out on this page, a meal’s being hot in the literal sense is not sufficient for its being a hot meal, in the idiomatic sense. Toasting a sandwich just before its consumption, for example, increases its temperature, but does not turn it into a hot meal. Being hot is, however, a necessary condition for being a hot meal: cold food, even in a substantial amount, would never constitute a hot meal.

Apart from that necessary condition, our willingness to apply the label has more to do with the way the food is consumed than with the characteristics of the food itself. We will generally decline to apply it to anything that is consumed while standing up, and to the food that is consumed at a table that has something other than dining as its primary purpose (e.g. food consumed while working at one’s desk in an office). Hot food consumed while sitting at (what in one’s culture counts as) a dining table is the paradigm of a hot meal; the notion may be extended to sitting at something that does not fully fit the definition of dining tables as long it sufficiently resembles them. Finger food, also, never counts as a hot meal; as pointed out by Oldbag, having a hot meal involves the use of utensils for at least some of its components.

The plausibility of this analysis is supported by the fact that if we are asked whether a hamburger or a burrito counts as a hot meal, we are likely to hesitate, and then, if we reflect on it more, say that it depends. If somebody gets for lunch a hamburger or a burrito that is presented in a wrapper, and then eats it while holding it in one’s hands, we would think it misleading to say that he has had a hot meal (as suggested in a comment by Hot Licks). On the other hand, a hamburger or a burrito served on a plate, with side dishes, in a full-service restaurant, probably does count as a hot meal.

How did a term that, taken literally, concerns only the temperature, come to carry such implications about the manner of consumption? The connection between the two is that many hot dishes (soups, stews, pasta) call for sitting down at a dining table, and using utensils; they would be very difficult to eat otherwise.


In the US, a "hot meal" infers more than temperature - a hamburger and french-fries, though hot, would probably not be what the person who suggests it, (or whom it was suggested to) had in mind. While a school cafeteria that guarantees a "hot lunch" might serve a 'burger and fries', the term "hot meal" conjures images of (some form of) meat, a complement of vegetation, and the involvement of cutlery.

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    I am vegetarian and I assure you I eat hot meals every day. There is no assumption of meatiness in a hot meal. Apr 26, 2015 at 20:27
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    @Alessandro Macilenti & Chan-Ho Suh - I was speaking of the "Average American". We are still, in general, a "meat and potatoes" culture. Try serving a vegetarian meal (to folks who are not of the 'vegetarian persuasion') on Thanksgiving, and see what happens. Or, try it at your wedding reception. The expression "A hot meal," carries with it a certain expectation to the majority of folks. I'm sorry if you feel left out - but that's the way it is.
    – Oldbag
    Apr 26, 2015 at 22:05
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    "(some form of) meat, a complement of vegetation, and the involvement of cutlery." Is raw, cold sushi also a hot meal, then? I would argue that the expectation of meat is not at all linked to the term "hot meal" but rather any "meal" at all. I must agree with @AlessandroMacilenti that there certainly are non-meaty "hot meal" main course items, e.g. a piping hot 3.5"-tall vegetarian lasagna platter.
    – JustAskin
    Apr 27, 2015 at 0:29
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    @Oldbag I would disagree with your assessment. Yes, people would be disappointed (if not angry) at being served a vegetarian meal for Thanksgiving, but not because of the lack of a "hot meal", but rather because of the lack of the very traditional Turkey, Dressing, Gravy, Cranberry Sauce, etc. The same can be said of a wedding reception (where you are typically served steak, fish, or some vegetarian option, with the choice of which left to the diner when replying to the RSVP). Those meals are traditional, it has nothing to do with 'hot meal' but rather 'traditional meal'
    – Doc
    Apr 27, 2015 at 6:07
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    @Oldbag everyone here understands your points. What we disagree with is that there is such a precise mental image formed as you assert. (Not a vegetarian, incidentally. ) May 3, 2015 at 19:29

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