What Is a Continental Breakfast?

updated Oct 25, 2023
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Breakfast Feast
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Chances are you’ve stayed at a hotel and had the opportunity to try out the continental breakfast at some point in your life. During your stay, however, you’ve probably spent some time wondering what exactly a continental breakfast is or what does it even mean for a breakfast to be “continental”?

While it may depend on the hotel itself, in general a continental breakfast typically comes with a set list of expectations. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at this popular option for travelers here in America and abroad, and see how this free meal came into fashion.

Quick Overview

What is a Continental Breakfast?

A continental breakfast is a type of meal offering common in American hotels and restaurants. Continental breakfasts are characterized by having traditionally light food items that are easy to prepare. A continental breakfast usually consists of foods such as toast, muffins, pastries, yogurt, and coffee. The term “continental” is believed to derive from the idea that these breakfast items were reminiscent of foods enjoyed by people of mainland western Europe. Many modern continental breakfasts, however, have evolved to include more than these foods.

What Exactly Is a Continental Breakfast, and What Makes It Continental?

The first known use of the term “continental breakfast” was in 1896 in “The Sanitarian,” but the idea had been around for a few decades before then as American hotels made an effort to appeal to the changing tastes of both the emerging middle class and European travelers visiting America.

A continental breakfast traditionally consisted of light breakfast foods such as toast, muffins, pastries, yogurt, and coffee or tea. These foods items were both east to prepare for large groups of people but were also meant to be similar to what Europeans typically had for breakfast.

The term “continental breakfast” originated in Britain in the mid-19th century. To the British, “the continent” refers to the countries of mainland Europe. A “continental breakfast” describes the type of breakfast you’d encounter in places like France, Italy, and Germany, as well as places in the Mediterranean. It’s a lighter, more delicate alternative to the full English breakfast — a heaping plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, beans, and roasted mushrooms and tomatoes.

Continental breakfasts were also a stark contrast to American-style breakfasts, which boasted large helpings of eggs, breakfast meats, pancakes, potatoes, and toast. Europeans preferred much more modest breakfast fare like fruit, bread, and pastries. So hotels aimed to please their palates.

Different Components of a Continental Breakfast

  • Light foods such as toast, muffins, pastries, yogurt, and bagels
  • Traditional drinks such coffee, tea, and juice
  • Limited selection of savory American breakfast food items such as bacon or sausage

Why Do Hotels Offer Continental Breakfast?

Not only are these items more cost-effective for hotels — you don’t need much staff to tend to a few trays of bagels, pastries, and carafes of orange juice in the lobby — but it’s also easier to manage than, say, cranking out omelets and flapjacks to order. (Of course, some hotels do serve a much larger, more involved, free breakfast.) And guests like the convenience of the food and the perceived value of getting something “for free.”

Is Continental Breakfast Free?

In the traditional American payment model, hotel guests enjoyed all their meals in the hotel’s restaurant. The price of the meals were included in one bill (room and board) at the end of their stay.

However, as guests preferred making cheaper and more flexible dining arrangements, hotels started adapting a European-style plan where meals were no longer folded into the cost of their stay. Guests only paid for their room.

Eventually, a hybrid plan emerged. It was called the “continental” model to set it apart from the other pricing structures. (It also sounds super fancy.) At a continental-style hotel, breakfast was now touted as being included with the price of the room, but guests were free to make their own arrangements for lunch and dinner. This model is now the standard in most hotels worldwide.

So next time you’re at a hotel and you nibble on a complimentary blueberry muffin while sipping your free coffee and reading your free newspaper, you’ll know how it all came about.