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What is an English Breakfast

Your plate is laden with sausages, bacon, scrambled egg, hash browns, black pudding, mushrooms, tomatoes, and slices of buttered toast. Depending on taste, this feast may also be augmented with tomato ketchup or (in Scotland) brown sauce. You are about to consume a traditional English breakfast and may be dithering over whether this is the perfect start to the day or the breakfast from Hell?

The origins of the English breakfast:

In researching this article, I read a great quote by the writer Somerset Maugham on the topic of breakfasting in England. Maugham advises that “to eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day”.

English (and British) cuisine isn’t always held in the highest regard, in comparison to some of its continental neighbours such as Italy and France, but the English breakfast is famous worldwide and is a curiosity that most tourists sample whilst holidaying in the UK.

Interestingly, however, the tradition of the English breakfast is a relatively recent phenomenon. Authoritative information on exactly when the English breakfast first surfaced is scant but it is clear that it didn’t become an ingrained part of the English breakfast landscape until the 19th century. Up until that point, breakfast typically consisted of beef, pork and bread and sometimes ale or beer.

Where it is served:

Most tourists to Britain experience an English breakfast either in a B&B guest-house or in a hotel. However, they can also be obtained in pubs and cafes. Indeed, many reckon that they are best experienced in a “greasy spoon” café, whilst watching the world go by, to get an authentic flavour and experience.

British people also often get an English breakfast from work canteens, although there has been a trend towards more healthy breakfasts such as cereal.

Other names and regional variations:

A full English breakfast may also sometimes just be called a Full Breakfast, Cooked Breakfast, or the Full Monty. This fried favourite is also not just restricted to the country of England. If you go to Scotland, you can get a Scottish breakfast which has similar ingredients but may also include haggis. Similarly, the Welsh have a Welsh Breakfast, and in Northern Ireland you can get an Ulster Fry that will typically include fried potato bread.

Health concerns:

It may seem bizarre but the English breakfast has not always been viewed as a coronary-inducing breakfast nasty. In the 1920s, for example, Edward Bernays commissioned a survey of physicians that recommended that people eat a “hearty” breakfast. Bernays was interested in promoting bacon and eggs and sent the survey results to the country’s doctors and claimed that bacon and eggs were the perfect hearty breakfast.

Of course, we now have a stack of scientific evidence that shows that the English Breakfast is anything but a healthy meal. Most of the ingredients are fried and the English breakfast typically contains “807 calories, 63g fat, 18g saturated fat and 4.52g salt”!

The UK suffers amongst the worst levels of coronary heart-related deaths in the world and the popularity of fried full breakfasts has certainly contributed to this health crisis. Health campaigns have been launched to raise awareness of the importance of healthy eating and this is leading to a gradual shift to more healthy breakfasts.

However, whilst eating an English breakfast every day may be inadvisable, it is a treat that people can still enjoy as long as it’s done in moderation. For example, many British households have adopted a tradition of having a full breakfast on Sundays.

Full list of ingredients:

At the start of this article, I made an attempt at listing the ingredients that one might expect to see served on an English Breakfast plate. That, however, was a partial list based upon some of the most common ingredients. I found a very good web page, on the BBC’s website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A103177 ) that provides a much fuller run down on all the foodstuffs that can be added to a full breakfast.

The additional items listed include baked beans (a relatively recent addition), fried bread, chips, sautéed potatoes, white pudding, beefburger, Bubble and Squeak (potato and cabbage), liver, and fried onions! In Scotland, you will also see squared sausage as an option.

Cafes and B&Bs often offer people the chance to choose a set number of items from a long list of ingredients, to (in effect) create their own personalised English Breakfast. And, of course, the full English Breakfast is always best enjoyed with that other bastion of Englishness, a cup of tea!


The English Breakfast (or its regional variations) is a delicious breakfast meal and may set you up for a long day. However, there’s no escaping the fact that it is something of a fatty indulgence and moderation is the key to avoid health problems and the need to buy new trousers. The popularity (and fame) of the English breakfast stretches far beyond the boundaries of the UK and it is a dish that can often be found right across the globe. What its future holds, in an increasingly health conscious world, is difficult to predict but, for now, it remains one of the most readily identifiable of British dishes.