What exactly is a continental breakfast?

A continental breakfast sounds pretty hearty — after all, continents are pretty big, right? But if you've rushed down to the hotel dining room in the morning hoping for a big brekkie spread, you might be a little disappointed with the offerings. 

The simplest definition of the phrase comes from Merriam-Webster, who notes that a continental breakfast is "a light breakfast (as of rolls or toast and coffee)." As far as why "continental" is used as part of the term, it's simply because the meal is based on the light breakfast fare of continental Europe (via Reader's Digest). 

While the specific items found at continental breakfast spreads around the U.S. can vary, they typically include items like coffee, tea, juice, bread items, pastries, cereal, and fruit. This contrasts heavily with a traditional English breakfast, which includes heartier foods such as bacon, sausage, beans, and eggs (via PrepScholar). 

How the continental breakfast got its start

The reason continental breakfasts started appearing in U.S. hotels was to cater to European appetites, as travel to the U.S. from continental Europe started to become more frequent in the late 19th century. 

While small packets of cereal, tiny cartons of milk, toast, fruit juice, jam, and coffee are typical mainstays of the continental breakfast, you might find more options depending on where you stay. Some establishments offer more variety, such as yogurt, waffles (that you make yourself!), muffins, Danishes, or fruit. If you're lucky, you might find yourself at a hotel that will sneak in even more varieties into their free "continental" breakfast, such as those well-loved hearty foods, like eggs, bacon, or sausage.

Continental breakfasts are often offered as a free perk in a typical American hotel stay. It's considered a low-cost option for the establishment, as there isn't a huge need for lots of staff to tend to the breakfast (via The Kitchn). It's also a sign of modern times. Originally, hotels included the cost of all meals, which were served in a hotel's restaurant, in the room fee, but eventually guests made it known that they preferred to make their own plans for mealtimes. The continental model was born so guests could enjoy a light breakfast for free, but could make their other meal plans on their own.