What Is a Continental Breakfast, Exactly?

And are you supposed to leave a tip?

High angle view of continental breakfast table with croissant and coffee cup
Photo: Cris Cantón/Getty Images

Who doesn't love a free breakfast? If you know someone who would turn away free food, we don't want to meet them.

Continental breakfasts are just one of the perks of an overnight hotel stay. But have you ever wondered about what exactly makes a meal a continental breakfast? Well, you've come to the right place:

What Is a Continental Breakfast — And How Is It Different From An English Breakfasts?

Continental breakfasts are light, typically free meals that are often associated with hotels.

Here's how The Food Lover's Companion, the definitive guide to all things food and cooking, defines continental breakfast: "A light breakfast that usually consists of a breadstuff (such as toast, croissants, pastries, etc.) and coffee, tea, or other liquid. The continental breakfast is the antithesis of the hearty English breakfast." (Note: Continental breakfasts also often include fruits, and can include other foods not listed here).

For reference, here's what it says about the aforementioned English breakfast: "A large, hearty breakfast that can include fruit or juice, eggs, ham or other meat, fish, cereal, baked goods, jam, and tea.

I don't know about you, but I feel like "continental" gives off an air of extravagance—and the second option sounds a bit more indulgent than a measly breakfast of toast and coffee.

Disappointing or not, the paltry meal makes sense for hotels trying to feed a crowd on a budget. Bread, coffee, and fruit are easy to produce cheaply and serve buffet-style.

Before we move on, it's interesting to note that there's actually a third type of breakfast that is often served in hotels. An American breakfast comes with two eggs, bacon or sausage, toast or cereal, and juice. Pancakes may or may not be included.

Mini Croissants filled with Nutella and Jam on a plate

Why Is It Called 'Continental Breakfast?'

When America consisted mostly of farmers who worked the land for a living, breakfast was typically a much heartier meal. As their jobs demanded physical labor, it was important for the people of the early 19th century and before to consume enough to sustain their overworked bodies.

The industrial revolution, however, changed things. Since many Americans needed fewer calories to get by, the traditional large breakfasts became a thing of the past.

At the same time, the dainty French idea of breakfast — petit déjeuner — was making its way across Europe.

European visitors to the U.S. expected light breakfast options, so hotels began offering the intercontinental travelers something that became known as "the continental breakfast."

Are Continental Breakfasts Actually Free?

Yes and no.

When you stay at a hotel that offers these breakfasts, you've likely paid for The Continental Plan (often abbreviated to CP). This means the price of your room includes breakfast on the premises.

If you're curious about how breakfast fits into your specific dining plan, call your hotel.

Are You Supposed to Tip for Continental Breakfasts?

While your food is covered by the cost of your room, it's still recommended that you leave a tip.

Think of it this way: Even though your meal is free and guests typically serve themselves buffet-style, there are still plenty of employees that worked to make the food available to you.

Do you think the kitchen stocks itself or your dishes become magically clean as soon as you walk away? No.

If you can afford to stay in a hotel, you can afford to leave a couple bucks for the people who made your "free breakfast" possible.

Latte in a white mug
House of Aqua

Continental Breakfast Ideas

Do you need to serve a hotel-style breakfast to a crowd? We've got you covered. Here's your perfectly planned continental breakfast menu:

Coffee. There's nothing wrong with serving your guests a pot of coffee (with optional sugar and cream, of course). If it's good enough for the Marriott, it's good enough for you. If you want to take things up a notch, though, try our Cafe Latte. It's totally worth the extra effort.

Toast. Again, if buttered Wonder Bread is your thing, you'll get no judgment from us. But if you want to really wow the crowd, this Strawberry Goat Cheese Bruschetta is definitely the way to go.

Croissants. What's better than a croissant? A Croissant Casserole, of course. Consider the breakfast game officially changed.

Serve these up with a bowl of pre-cut fruit, and you're good to go.

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