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The Old-Fashioned Dinner Habit that Can Help You Sleep Better

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Did you know that it’s actually not really a good idea to eat a lot of muscle meats (like chicken, beef, pork, etc.) for your evening meal?

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. No meat at supper time?! Isn’t that what everybody does? Isn’t that the traditional way to eat?

Actually . . . no. It isn’t.

When you look back at food history, the supper meal was a lot different than the way it is for most of us today. In fact, our entire eating schedule is basically reversed from that of our great-grandparents generation and earlier.


Up until our modern era of fast food and always rushing out the door for one thing or another, breakfast was a pretty big deal.

An old-fashioned breakfast truly was treated as if it were the most important meal of the day, and it was a large affair of eggs, bacon, or homemade sausage (or maybe even all three!), along with a hearty portion of pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, biscuits and gravy, and sometimes even pie, depending on the time period which region of the country you lived in.

The morning meal was a good balance of all three macro-nutrients – protein, fat, and carbs – and it was a filling, “stick-to-your-ribs” kind of meal. Not at all like the grab-a-granola-bar-on-the-way-out-the-door breakfast that many of us have today.


It was the same with dinner too.

(And by dinner, I’m referring to the mid-day meal. The typical old-fashioned terminology was breakfast, dinner, and supper, not the breakfast, lunch, and dinner we usually say today, depending on where you live, of course. For me, living in New England, it’s usually breakfast, lunch, and supper, and the only meal that’s really ever called “dinner” is the large after-church Sunday dinner meal.)

 An old-fashioned dinner was typically the largest meal of the day, and it was usually served sometime in the early afternoon (a bit later than our usual noon-time lunch because of the larger breakfast they would have had.)

Old-fashioned dinners were often multi-course meals of substantial foods, not like the light salads and sandwiches that are standard lunch fare today. Like breakfast, dinner was also a meal to slow down and sit down at the table to enjoy.

Those who lived on a farm would take a break from their work in the fields to come back to the house for dinner, and even those who owned their own general mercantile or barber shop might close their store for dinner hour so they could take the time for a home-cooked meal.


An old-fashioned supper was usually more like a evening snack. It might have been served around 7:00 or 8:00 at night and it would have been a quick and light meal that often consisted of leftovers from the dinner meal.

Cheese, bread, and fruit were common supper time foods that might have been eaten along with some tea or hot chocolate. Sometimes the evening supper would even have been as simple as just bread and milk.

Of course, meal times and types vary a lot depending on culture and time period, but generally speaking, you see a trend toward eating more food in the earlier hours of the day and less food as the day goes on. You also see more muscle meats earlier in the day (like bacon at breakfast or chicken at dinner) and other forms of protein at night for supper (like milk or cheese).

Why Limit Muscle Meats at Night?

And now to answer the question of why we should limit muscle meats at our evening meal and why this old-fashioned dinner habit can help us to sleep better.

Well, the problem with muscle meats is that they can actually contribute to inflammation, which is exactly what we don’t want if we want to have a good night of sleep. According to Emily Benfit of Butter Believer,

“It’s best to limit the amount of muscle meats you consume later in the day, especially if you’re struggling with insomnia. The reason for this is that muscle meats are actually fairly inflammatory foods. That’s because muscle meats are too high in certain inflammatory amino acids, tryptophan in particular.” (The Sleep Solution – pg. 70)

So basically, having lots of chicken or steak at dinner = increase in stress-producing inflammatory amino acids like  = harder time falling asleep and staying asleep at night. Not good!

The Solution

So, what’s the solution to this sleep-disrupting problem? (And what do you do if you still want to keep eating meat anyways?)

1) Eat more meat at breakfast and lunch and less at supper.

The first option is to simply re-arrange your eating schedule so that you eat the majority of your meat earlier in the day. Have ham or bacon with breakfast, for example, or have steak or roast chicken for lunch and then have a lighter supper like soup or salad with just a small portion of meat.

This isn’t always practical, though. Sometimes, depending on your schedule, the only time you have to prepare a larger, more substantial meal is in the evening for supper. Or maybe you’re eating out with friends and you don’t want to just have a salad while everyone else is having a heartier meal with meat.

For times when you still want to eat meat later in the day, option #2 comes to the rescue:

2) Eat gelatin-rich foods.

The solution for those times when you still want to have meat for supper is to eat foods rich in gelatin, such as homemade jello or fruit snacks or homemade chicken broth. Another option, if you don’t want to have broth or jello, is to use a collagen powder that you can mix with liquid and drink. I like using this kind because it dissolves in both hot and cold water so you can add it to any drink you like.

“Gelatin is pro-metabolic, anti-inflammatory, and provides the right amino acid profile to balance the other proteins we consume, like muscle meats, which are high in sleep-disruptive and stressful tryptophan.” The Sleep Solution – pg. 64

So, because the gelatin is an anti-inflammatory protein, it counters the inflammatory protein in muscle meats, reducing the chance that those stressful amino acids will disrupt our sleep.

Having gelatin along with meat is actually a traditional, old-fashioned habit too. Just about every old-fashioned meat dish was served with some sort of gravy or sauce (which was made from gelatin-rich homemade broth). Soups or stews (also made from gelatin-rich broth) were also very common. And, even though it might seem like a modern dessert item, I’ve actually seen several 19th century recipes for desserts made from water, lemon juice, and isinglass (which was a type of gelatin made from the bladders of sturgeon or cod fish.)

So, if you’ve been having trouble sleeping at night, and you can’t quite figure out why, trying reducing the amount of meat you eat at supper (or having jello for dessert!) to see if it might help.

And, if sleep is something you struggle with, check out The Sleep Solution by Emily Benfit. Reading this book really changed the way I think about sleep (and it inspired me to give my 30-Day Sleep Challenge another try too!) I would definitely recommend it for anyone who wants to stop being frustrated about not being able to fall asleep easily and who wants to get a full, restful night of beauty sleep. 🙂

Click here to view more details about The Sleep Solution


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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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Thursday 30th of November 2017

I love this idea! I just shared this to my Facebook page. My grandma used to cook a big midday meal and they would nibble on leftovers at night. It makes sense to do the cooking in the morning when you have the most energy! This is something I would like to try. It's hard though, since my son is in school and he needs a really substantial meal at night. Our modern society doesn't quite fit with this, does it?


Thursday 30th of November 2017

Yes, it definitely does make sense to do it all earlier when you have the most energy, doesn't it? And back in previous centuries, it made even more sense because they could get it all done and then bank the fire in the kitchen hearth for the day. It's too bad our modern society makes this more difficult than it used to be! Thanks for sharing with your Facebook page! :)

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