Did people of Jesus’ time eat healthier than we do today? Meg, a high schooler, listens to me on Sacred Heart Radio for my Bible foods & herbs segments. She is interested in what people ate during the time of Jesus - wanted info on this subject for a paper she’s writing. You may be surprised to learn that many of the trends today have ancient Biblical roots. Mary also asked for info. Now what I have noted below is what ordinary folks ate, not the wealthy.
FOOD DURING BIBLE TIMES
Meals eaten by ordinary people of Bible/Jesus’ times fell into 2 categories: daily and festive meals. Today we’re talking about the daily meals eaten.
Meals, though they may have been meager, were important to the bonding of family and community. Today we “break bread” with family and friends, much like Jesus did.
Two meals a day: Women prepared meals.
Daily meals were prepared by women. Two daily meals were usually eaten by the family, either in the home or in the field.
The first meal was eaten in the late-morning, as a break in the workday, and could include roasted grain, olives, figs or some other fruit, bread, dipped in olive oil or vinegar, or eaten with garlic, onions or radishes and water or wine. There’s another good example of this in the Book of Ruth (Ruth2:14) when she was helping out in the fields and prepared and ate food with the workers.
The daily diet of the ordinary ancients was mainly one of flat bread, cooked grains and legumes, like lentils, beans and chick peas. These were often roasted, dried and used in soups and stews or ground into pastes. Sesame seeds were an important seed to eat, and inscriptions of it have been found on ancient Egyptian tombs.
Agricultural workers comprised the largest part of the population.
Bread was eaten with every meal. Vegetables were eaten less frequently but were an important part of the daily diet. Most food was eaten fresh and in season, and fruits and vegetables had to be eaten as soon as they were ripe since there was no means of keeping them refrigerated.
Vegetables included cucumbers, onions, radishes, garlic (yes, it was eaten as a vegetable!) and leeks.
They drank goat and sheep’s milk mainly in the spring and summer, and also ate butter and cheese. Milk was made into laban, a type of yogurt.
Figs, melon, grapes were common fruits, and dates, pomegranates along with other fruits and nuts, like pistachios, walnuts and almonds were eaten in season.
Meat, usually goat and mutton, was eaten rarely and was reserved for special occasions such as celebrations, festival meals or sacrificial feasts.
Game, birds, eggs and fish were also eaten, depending on availability. Fish was eaten fresh or salted for later use.
Honey, of course, was a common sweetener, eaten by John the Baptist, Jesus’ first cousin. Olives were used both as a food and for lighting lamps.
Vinegar, probably red wine vinegar made from red grapes, was popular.
Foods dried for later use.
It was important to dry foods in case of famine. Grapes were made into raisins and wine; olives into oil, figs, lentils and other beans were dried. Grains were stored for use throughout the year. The typical diet was more vegetarian.
Spices like cumin, dill, cinnamon, mint, thyme, hyssop, mustard, coriander and salt were available and used to enhance foods.
That was the main meal and was eaten as supper in the evening, like we do today. That meal would have included a soup or stew cooked over the fire, along with the bread, vegetables in season, cheese and fruits, in particular melons in the summer. Milk was also part of the meal.