In several older TV shows (think Andy Griffith) I've heard the term "Square Meal" used to describe an ideal hardy and nutritious meal. The term can be applied to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Where did this term come from, and what does it actually mean, and why did it fall out of use?

  • 3
    I wouldn't say it's fallen out of use. One might still say "three squares a day" and have that be easily understood by most in the US (at least those over 30 or so). (And, of course, "square deal" still means an honest deal.)
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 26, 2015 at 23:48
  • Guess so, I have yet to hear someone use this in person though. Apr 27, 2015 at 0:02
  • 2
    I agree with Hot Licks. I also wouldn't bat an eye at, say, "I haven't had a square meal in days".
    – ruakh
    Apr 27, 2015 at 3:10
  • Also I agree with HotLicks. But we haven't answered the last question, why has it fallen (relatively?) out of use? Because we no longer sit down to "square meals" but graze fast-food joints on the street?
    – David Pugh
    Apr 27, 2015 at 10:12
  • @ruakh - If I hadn't had a square meal in days I'd be batting more than an eye.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 27, 2015 at 12:09

4 Answers 4


Evan Morris has a 2008 article which mentions this (and other uses of 'square') in The Word Detective:

... In adopting the term “square” to their own use, the jazz musicians were, ironically, simply employing a very old sense of “square” meaning “fair, honest, reliable or in proper order” (still heard in phrases such as “square deal”).

This “square,” which dates back to at least the 16th century, rests in turn on the use of “square” to mean “equal” (as are the sides of a geometric square) or “solid, steady” (as a structure with properly square joints). The use of “square” in “square meal” conveys the same sense of “proper and substantial” (and, despite the popular legend, has nothing to do with square plates).

As slang for the conservative types of music jazz marked a radical departure from, “square” was a perfect fit.

  • Huh. I always thought it was one of those deep-dish pizzas...
    – Jim Mack
    Apr 27, 2015 at 1:35
  • 1
    It is sense 9 of square in the OED. Just or equitable; fair, honest, honourable, straightforward. 'Three square meals a day' simply means 'three honest meals...' - honest in the sense of 'nutritious'.
    – WS2
    Apr 27, 2015 at 8:11

Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Book of Clichés, second edition (2006), offers this entry:

square meal, a A substantial and nourishing repast. A mid-nineteenth century Americanism, the term appears in humorist Stephen Leacock's Literary Lapses (1910): "Any two meals at a boarding house are together less than two square meals."

One astute 19th-century commenter, Maximilian Schele de Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872) has this to say about "square" (squarely) and "square meal" (glancingly):

Square, either as an adjective qualifying a noun, as "a square trade," or as a phrase, on the square, refers to the open, fair character of a transaction. In either case the metaphor is borrowed from the Masonic emblem, the square being the symbol of evenness and rectitude. Thus all squares is used in Pickwick Papers, p. 434. "It ain't no square game. They've jest put up the keerds on the chap from the start." (F. B. Harte, Preface to Luck of Roaring Camp, p. 1.) "Can you give us a square meal?" "This is all a fair, square, bona fide (fide to be pronounced as a monosyllable) business enterprise, is it? (Putnam's Magazine, August, 1868.)

Among the earliest definitions of the phrase is this one from a glossary of "Californianisms" included in John Hittell, The Resources of California, Comprising Agriculture, Mining, Geography, Climate, Commerce, Etc. Etc. (1863):

Square Meal, a good meal at a table, as distinguished from such meals as men make when they are short of provisions, a condition not uncommon among men who make adventurous trips into the mountains.

So it's not surprising that perhaps the earliest Google Books match for "square meal" occurs in "The World in California," in Hutchings' California Magazine (February 1857):

He ["the Miner"] almost invariably attends church on Sunday, or visits some city, town, or village where there ought to be one,—and though he seldom works on that day, his presence in town makes everybody else work. His weekly supply of "grub," and his one "square meal" on Sunday, he will have ; picks must be sharpened, and his boots made thicker on their bottoms; ...

Several other authors writing in the 1860s (including Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad [1869]) report that "square meal" is native to California, so perhaps it really was.

An Ngram chart of the frequency of "square meal" from 1850 to 2005 shows a gradual decline since roughly 1920:

but I agree with the commenters above who say that the expression remains fairly common in informal U.S. English.


I heard it was to do with the navy, square plates on board ship simply made sense as it was easier to stow away square plates as apposed to round ones. Plus three square meals meant that a warship could be ran twenty four seven depending on your shift, also the word square meal was easier to serve equally Amonst the crew As a square has four corners hence meat three veg. I strongly believe this to be the truth.

  • 2
    Welcome to EL&U. Please note that this is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and more definitive answers— those which back their explanations with citations— have previously been supplied. If you can present evidence, please edit your post to do so, as the current explanation sounds like folk etymology. I also encourage you to take the site tour and to review the help center for additional guidance.
    – choster
    Sep 5, 2017 at 17:40

The four traditional food groups represented in a square meal correspond to the four sides of a square.

  • 3
    Since square meal meaning a substantial and nourishing repast is 'a mid-nineteenth century Americanism' [Ammer; de Vere_see above] and 'The United States Department of Agriculture initially grouped foods according to nutritional attributes in 1916. Between 1916 and 1992, the number of food groups varied from four to 12.' [Healthyeating], this answer is demonstrably incorrect. Sep 15, 2017 at 15:48

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