Why Are Hotel Breakfasts Called 'Continental'?

The history behind this breakfast tradition.

When choosing a hotel to stay at, many of us like to choose one that includes a few extra perks. A continental breakfast is one of the most sought-after for budget-minded travelers—it's an added bonus that feels like a special treat. There's nothing better than an affordable hotel with a free amenity or two to sweeten the deal. But what exactly is a continental breakfast and why is it called "continental," anyway?

Getting anything for free is nice and when it comes to food, most of us just can't resist. Not all hotel breakfasts include the same things—but there are the standard items that most hotel continental breakfasts will have.

Although the term "continental" might conjure up images of a big breakfast, it is actually the opposite. The offerings may even be considered to be more snack-like. Here's everything that you need to know about the history of continental breakfasts including why hotel breakfasts are called "continental" in the first place.

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What Is a Continental Breakfast?

A continental breakfast is a complimentary buffet of light breakfast items like pastries, fruit, toast, cereal, juice and coffee. Many of them offer additional items like waffles, oatmeal, yogurt, eggs and meat as well. However, the eggs and meat are not the quality that you would get at a restaurant. The choices consist of foods that are inexpensive to buy in bulk. All of the options served are easy-to-stock items that only require displaying or reheating if necessary.

The items served are intended to be used as a simple meal to get you started on your day. Even with just the standard items, there are enough good choices to find something to please. Maybe a muffin and coffee are just what you need to tide you over until your next meal. If that doesn't sound healthy enough, there is usually a variety of fruits and cereal too.

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Why Are Hotel Breakfasts Called 'Continental'?

The first time that the term "continental breakfast" was known to be used was back in 1896 in an issue of The Sanitarian, a monthly magazine dedicated to the preservation of health. In issue number 36, the term “continental breakfast” was used to describe the kind of meal American tourists had in hotels in the Old Country, which consisted of a roll and a coffee.

However, the idea for this type of breakfast had been around for a few decades longer than that. The continental breakfast started when American hotels wanted to appeal to European tourists. These visitors from the "continent," or mainland Europe, were used to eating a lighter breakfast than what Americans typically ate at the time. Basically, "continental" refers to the type of breakfast eaten in European countries.

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When Did a Typical American Breakfast Change?

Although hotels first wanted to appeal to European travelers, they also wanted to offer a lighter breakfast option to America's growing middle class. Needs were changing as the country was getting more urbanized with bigger cities.

Back in the early 1800s, hearty breakfasts were necessary for hard-working American farm families. Breakfast, at that time, could consist of several options like meat, eggs, fish, bread, cereal and fruit.

Once people began working city jobs like shopkeepers, dentists and a variety of office jobs, not as many calories were necessary to provide energy for these less physical jobs.

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Why Do Hotels Offer a Continental Breakfast?

Offering a complimentary light breakfast is a great way to entice travelers to stay at their hotel. It's a cost-effective option that is easy to stock and requires very little staff. Since so many people like the perk of free food, it just makes sense that hotels cater to that need and gain more guests.

Next Up: The History of Brunch and Why It's Still Popular Today