A cultural history of the brinner phenomenon
EC: Breakfast: It’s What’s for Dinner
Credit: Illustration by Lauren Kolm

Buried deep in the seventh season of Scrubs is a reference to the cultural phenomenon of breakfast for dinner, or brinner. “Are you ready for presents?” Carla asks her husband Turk on their sixth anniversary, revealing a skimpy negligee. Turk looks stunned. “Baby, you already made me brinner!” The subtext is clear: There is no greater gift.

Since bursting into our collective consciousness, brinner’s rise has been as swift and inevitable as that of a tall, fluffy biscuit. In September, McDonald’s announced that it would be introducing all-day breakfast service in its US franchises, although the shift would be tempered by moves to “protect the integrity of each daypart,” presumably marketing-speak for avoiding deconstructing the menu completely. And lest you think it’s our super-sized American appetite for sugary foods that’s the culprit, a recent study by UK charity Cancer Research UK claims that one in three Britons eats typical breakfast foods for dinner at least once a week. That’s a lot of Full English Dinners.

How did brinner go from the evening equivalent of Sad Desk Lunch, the territory of cooking-averse workaholics (think Don Draper making Sally hash and eggs the night that Betty is in labor on Mad Men), to brunch’s cooler, less obnoxious cousin? First, the obvious: Breakfast for dinner is only a conceptual possibility if breakfast foods are, in fact, markedly different from dinner foods. This was less likely to be the case before the 1950s and the marketing of mass-produced breakfast cereals, sliced bread, and small appliances like toasters, something underscored by the grim titles of a popular 1920s cookbook series by Bessie R. Murphy, self-proclaimed “Southern Food Expert and Lecturer,” which are all variations on the same three-meals-a-day theme: Peanuts: for Breakfast, Lunch, and Supper and other titles extolling the virtues of cornmeal, rice, and potatoes).

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Credit: Photo via Flickr user Kathy Drasky

Then there's the novelty factor: Breakfast for dinner is "different" without being exotic or threatening;. Like dessert sushi on Gilmore Girls, it represents a reassuringly basic return to basics. In research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Shelley Aikman and Stephen Crites found that the "time-typicality" of foods—whether there is a match between the time of the day a food is generally eaten and when study participants were asked to record their attitudes about it—plays an important role in influencing attitudes towards foods. In general, when a food is "time-typical," hunger increases positive attitudes toward it more than when a food is "time-atypical." Aikman and Crites's conclusions reveal something intuitive about the way a food's context affects how we feel about it. When you're starving and it’s your usual dinner time, you are more likely choose a time-typical food like pasta or steak over a time-atypical food like pancakes. But when hunger is not the chief motivational factor at play, time-atypical foods (i.e., brinner) presumably start to look more appealing.

That's not to say that the rebranding of comfort food as gourmet grub hasn't contributed to brinner's popularity. Establishments like Oatmeals, an all-day oatmeal bar in New York's Greenwich Village, and Empire Biscuit, in the nearby East Village, are representative of a broader trend of restaurants with single-item menus, often specializing in a gussied-up version of a childhood favorite. Brinner plays to this deep-seated desire for the familiar by showcasing the types of hearty foods—pancakes, bacon, waffles—associated with the leisurely breakfasts of American childhood, whether real or mythologized, and often experienced as comfort food, doused in equal parts maple syrup and nostalgia.

Among this pantheon of breakfast greats, modern-day equivalents of Proust’s madeleine, cereal for dinner occupies an awkward place. After all, it's usually eaten out of a free mug you got in college—which was likely two years ago, if you're eating it in the first place—and accompanied by a side of self-loathing. But the Wall Street Journal reports that cereal companies have begun marketing cereal as a late-night snack or light meal for adults and kids—part of a new focus on “off-breakfast eating." Cereal, the argument goes, is a relatively healthy alternative to traditional dinner foods and a prime diet component. MarketWatch covers similar territory in a piece on Kellogg’s attempts to win back strong growth figures, noting that in Mexico, 35 percent of cereal is eaten for dinner. Apart from why anyone would pick cereal over Mexican food, the unavoidable question these articles raise is whether cereal for dinner is, in fact, really brinner at all. But, let’s return to something we can all get behind. In the words of Chris Turk, MD, “It’s kind of hard to beat brinner.”