Northern European Diet


The traditional northern European diet generally consists of a large serving of meat, poultry, or fish, accompanied by small side dishes of vegetables and starch. The traditional diet is high in protein, primarily from meat and dairy products. The diet tends to be low in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Immigrants from this region of the world brought this eating pattern to North America and it still influences the “meat and potatoes” American meal. The influence of each country's food habits on each other is also extensive.


The countries of northern Europe include the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), the Republic of Ireland (now a sovereign country), and France. These countries are all part of the European Union. England and France have a very diverse population due to the large number of immigrants from former colonies and current dependent territories. Catholicism and Protestantism are the dominant religions.


This entry discusses traditional eating habits and meals in northern Europe. It is not necessarily a reflection of everyday eating habits.


English cuisine was primarily shaped during the Victorian era. The diet relies heavily on meats, dairy products, wheat, and root vegetables. The English are famous for their flower gardens, but they are also known for their kitchen gardens, which yield an abundance of herbs and vegetables. A traditional breakfast is very hearty and generally consists of bacon, eggs, grilled tomato, and fried bread. Kippers (smoked herring) and porridge are also popular at breakfast. Some Britons may partake in afternoon tea, which consists of tiny sandwiches (no crust) filled with cucumber or watercress, scones or crumpets with jam or clotted cream, cakes or tarts, and a pot of hot tea. This has become more of a treat than an everyday occurrence. Tea shops abound in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Britons drink about four cups of tea a day. Coffee is also very popular with the younger generation.

Traditional dishes of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and France


Main ingredients


Cornish pastry

Steak, potatoes, turnips, onions


Fish and chips

Cod or pollack, potatoes


Ploughman's lunch

Cheese, bread, pickled onions, and ale


Shepard's pie

Meat, potatoes, vegetables


Stargazy pie



Steak and kidney pie

Beef steak, lamb's kidneys


Bangers and mash

Sausage, mashed potatoes



Sheep's offal



Pig liver


Glamorgan sausage

Cheese, bread crumbs, onions, eggs (meatless)


Poacher's pie

Venison, wild boar, rabbit, pheasant, smoked bacon, mushrooms


Welsh rarebit (or rabbit)

Melted cheese


Welsh salt duck

Duck, salt



Mashed potatoes, onions, cabbage


Corned beef and cabbage

Corned beef, cabbage, carrots, onions



Fish stock, fish, shellfish


Chocolate mousse

Chocolate, eggs, cream


Foie gras

Goose or duck liver


Quiche Lorraine

Egg, bacon, cheese, pie crust



Eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes


Salade Nigoise

Tuna, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, olives


Full English breakfast (fry up).

Full English breakfast (fry up).

Scottish cuisine is centered on fresh raw ingredients such as seafood, beef, game, fruits, and vegetables. Porridge, or boiled oatmeal, is usually eaten for breakfast. It is cooked with salt and milk—Scots do not usually eat their oatmeal with sugar or syrup.

The Aberdeen-Angus breed of beef cattle is widely reared across the world and is famous for rich and tasty steaks. Scottish lamb also has an excellent international reputation. Game such as rabbit, deer, woodcock, and grouse also plays an important role in the Scottish diet. Fish and seafood are abundant due to the numerous seas, rivers, and lochs (lakes). Scottish kippers and smoked salmon are international delicacies. As in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are numerous tea shops. Scotland is also known for its excellent whiskey and cheeses.

Scotland's national dish is haggis, which is made from sheep's offal. The windpipe, lungs, heart, and liver of the sheep are boiled and then minced. The mixture is then combined with beef suet and oatmeal. The mixture is placed inside the sheep's stomach, which is then sewn shut and boiled.


The food in Wales is similar to that of Britain or Scotland; however, there are a number of specialties. The leek (a vegetable) is a national emblem and is used in a number of dishes. St. David is the patron saint of Wales and the leek is worn on St. David's Day, March 1, a national holiday. Potato is a dietary staple. Fish and seafood are abundant, especially trout and salmon. Popular dishes in Wales include Welsh rarebit (or rabbit), poacher's pie, faggots (made from pig liver), Glamorgan sausage (which is actually meatless), and Welsh salt duck.


The island of Ireland consists of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is a state that covers approximately five-sixths of the island, while the remaining sixth of the island is known as Northern Ireland, and is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is predominantly Protestant and the Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic.

Milk, cheese, meat, cereals, and some vegetables formed the main part of the Irish diet before the potato was introduced to Ireland in the seventeenth century. The Irish were the first Europeans to use the potato as a staple food. The potato, more than anything else, contributed to the population growth on the island, which had less than 1 million inhabitants in the 1590s but had 8.2 million in 1840. However, the dependency on the potato eventually led to two major famines and a series of smaller famines.

The potato is still the staple food in Ireland, though other root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, and onions, are eaten when in season. A traditional Irish dish is colcannon, made of mashed potatoes, onions, and cabbage. It came to the United States in the 1800s with the huge wave of Irish immigration, and is often served on St. Patrick's Day (March 17). Corned beef and cabbage are also eaten on St. Patrick's Day.


One of modern France's greatest treasures is its rich cuisine. The French have an ongoing love affair with food. Families still gather together for the Sunday midday feast, which is eaten leisurely through a number of appetizers and main courses. Most French meals are accompanied by wine.

French cuisine is divided into classic French cuisine (haute cuisine) and provincial or regional cuisine. Classic French cuisine is elegant and formal and is mostly prepared in restaurants and catered at parties. More simple meals are usually prepared at home. Buttery, creamy sauces characterize classic French cuisine in the west, northwest, and north-central regions. The area surrounding Paris in the north-central region is the home of classic French cuisine. The area produces great wine, cheese, beef, and veal. Fish and seafood are abundant in the northern region, and the famous Belon oysters are shipped throughout France. Apples are grown in this region and apple brandy and apple cider are widely exported. Normandy is known for its rich dairy products, and its butter and cheeses are among the best in the world. The Champagne district is located in the northernmost region, bordering Belgium and the English Channel, and is world-renowned for its sparkling wines. Only those produced in this region can be legally called “champagne” in France.

German cuisine has influenced French cuisine in the east and northeast parts of the country. Beer, sausage, sauerkraut, and goose are very popular, for example (goose fat is used for cooking). Famous dishes from these regions include quiche Lorraine and goose liver pâté(pâté de fois gras). The south of France borders the Mediterranean Sea, and the cuisine in this region is similar to that of Spain and Italy. Olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and fresh vegetables are all widely used. Famous dishes from this region are black truffles, ratatouille, salade Nicçoise, and bouillabaisse.

The French eat three meals a day and rarely eat snacks. They usually eat a light continental breakfast consisting of a baguette (French bread) or croissant with butter or jam. Strong coffee with hot milk accompanies breakfast (sometimes hot chocolate). Lunch is the largest meal of the day. Wine is drunk with lunch and dinner, and coffee is served after both meals. France is also known for its exquisite desserts such as crème brûlée and chocolate mousse.

A disease caused by uncontrolled growth of the body's cells.
Coronary heart disease—
A progressive reduction in blood supplied to the heart muscle due to the narrowing or blockage of a coronary artery.
High blood pressure—
Blood pressure is the force of the blood on the arteries as the heart pumps blood through the body. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition where there is too much pressure, which can lead to heart and kidney problems.
Condition characterized by excessive weight due to accumulation of fat, usually defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above or body weight greater than 30% above normal on standard height-weight tables.
Saturated fat—
A fat with the maximum possible number of hydrogens; more difficult to break down than unsaturated fats.


A traditional northern European diet is generally high in fat. According to the UK Department of Health, one in four adults is obese, as well as more than one in ten children. Assessments by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Food Standards Agency have found that the majority of the UK population does not meet recommended requirements for fruits and vegetables, oily fish, and physical activity and exceeds recommendations for sugar, fat, saturated fat, alcohol, and sodium. These intakes are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, dental caries, high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity, and other chronic diseases.

France's low rate of heart disease has been termed the “French Paradox.” The theory is that France's low rate of heart disease is due to the regular consumption of wine, despite the high intake of saturated fats. However, recent evidence suggests that the rate of heart disease in France may have been underestimated and underreported, for while the rate of heart disease is lower in France than most countries, it is still the number one cause of death in France. In addition, the consumption of saturated fat has increased, which will eventually result in increased risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), regardless of wine intake.


Research and general acceptance

Cardiovascular disease (e.g., coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension) is the most common cause of death in these countries, and smoking rates are high. Obesity is the fastest growing chronic disease, especially among children. Alcoholism is high, especially among the Irish.



Bender, David A. A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. 4th ed. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Kindle edition.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Jones, Keith. Diet and Nutrition Sourcebook. 5th ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2016.

Sharon, Michael. Nutrient A–Z: A User's Guide to Foods, Herbs, Vitamins, Minerals & Supplements. 4th ed. New York: Carlton, 2009.


Bates, Beverley, et al., eds. “National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Headline Results from Years 1 and 2 (Combined) of the Rolling Programme 2008/9–2009/10.” Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency. (accessed April 13, 2018).

Linnane, John. “A History of Irish Cuisine (before and after the potato).” Ravensgard Medieval Homepage. (accessed April 13, 2018).


British Nutrition Foundation, High Holborn House, 52-54 High Holborn, London, UK, WC1V 6RQ, +44 20 7404 6504, Fax: +44 20 7404 6747,, .

Food Standards Agency, Aviation House, 125 Kingsway, London, UK, WC2B 6NH, +44 20 7276 8000, .

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, Department of Health, 6th Fl. Wellington House, 133-155 Waterloo Rd., London, UK, SE1 8UG, +44 20 7972 4018,, .

Delores C. S. James

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.