What is a substantial meal? Tier 2 rules for pubs and restaurants in December 2020

Wondering what exactly makes up a substantial meal for when pubs and bars can open after lockdown? This is what you need to know.

Three scotch eggs - one of the meals suggested to be 'substantial' under new government rules for tier 2

There was a time last year when the idea of a scotch egg saving pubs and restaurants from closing would have been met with bewilderment - but not in 2020.

When it comes to what is a substantial meal in pubs and restaurants under the new tier system when lockdown ends on December 2, there has been much confusion so far. 

Under the new rules set by the government for December 2020, pubs and restaurants reopening in tier 2 local lockdown areas can only serve alcohol to customers if it comes with a 'substantial meal'. But what is a 'substantial meal'? Well, according to one government minister, this can include a single scotch egg.  

Environment Secretary George Eustice responded positively when he was asked about the inclusion of the deli snack in a conversation about the new rules for bars, pubs and restaurants with LBC earlier this week:

“I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service,” Mr Eustice said. “Often that might be as a starter, but yes, I think it would.”

Whether the minister meant that the scotch egg would be served in addition to a main meal or with a side dish is not entirely clear, but a spokesperson for the prime minister soon disputed the idea that it could constitute a substantial meal. In a quick statement, they said, "Bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal."

So with scotch eggs ruled out for pubs and restaurants wanting to serve pints, what do you have to eat to be allowed alcohol when venues can re-open from December 2nd onwards?

What is a substantial meal?

Substantial meals are defined as: “a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal" in the government's Covid-19 Winter Plan, but there hasn't been any specific advice on what exact dishes make up these meals quite yet. 

Under the new regulations, a substantial meal has to be delivered with table service or eaten “at a counter or other structure which serves the purposes of a table.” 

group of friends eating a substantial meal together in tier 2 restrictions

Credit: Getty

This isn’t the first time there has been confusion over what a 'substantial meal' is. The same issue was raised under the previous three tier system and at the time it was suggested by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick that a substantial meal is something that “you would expect to have as a midday meal or an evening meal”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has also offered their point of view on the matter and suggested, “It would be difficult to argue that a single sausage roll or a snack pork pie constitutes a main meal, whereas if it was served plated with accompaniments such as vegetables, salad, potatoes, it could be considered substantial.” 

So there we have it! Ultimately of course, it’s down to hospitality venues to dictate what counts as a substantial meal as they’re required to serve one by law to stay open. 

How many drinks can you have with a substantial meal?

The government hasn't laid out any guidance over how many drinks are allowed with a substantial meal and it's likely to be up to the venue to decide what is appropriate.

However, venues have to serve food alongside their drinks and despite the original nature of the venue, they have to "operate as if they were a restaurant". So basically, if you finish your food you can't order any more drinks afterwards.

wine glasses on a table with plates

Naturally for many people, keen to get back into pubs and bars with friends over the festive season, the new rules pose more questions than answers. Alistair Kerr from The Campaign For Pubs told Sky News that landlords would have to offer a "common sense policy" and would not "endorse unsociable drinking".

But with hospitality venues suffering immensely this year and continuing to make losses under the new restrictions, which sees limitations on trading through their busiest month of the year, he said that some would allow customers to order multiple drinks at a time where appropriate to cover the costs.

Under the new hospitality rules for tiers one and two, the previous 10pm closing time has been extended to 11pm with final orders coming in one hour before.

Can I stay and order drinks after eating my meal?

group of friends drinking in a pub with substantial meal

Credit: Getty

Unfortunately it looks like customers will have to leave the venue after they have finished their meals.

According to the trade body Hospitality UK, it's up to each individual venue to decide what is reasonable behaviour in each circumstance under the new restrictions. For example, diners will likely be able to order their drinks before the food arrives but won't be able to order another drink after their plates have been cleared away.

The idea behind it is to limit the time that people can spend with those outside their households and therefore, to limit the amount of time and opportunities that coronavirus has to spread. It's just one of the measures that has been put in place for December, before the Christmas lockdown rules come into place, to allow people to gather together for the festive season without potentially risking further lockdowns down the line including one in January and throughout 2021. 

On the plus side, however, it also gives people a rough time scale of how long they can expect to spend in a pub or restaurant after the new restrictions and won’t be surprised when they are asked to finish up. 

Is a sandwich a substantial meal?

Previous statements issued by the government would suggest that a sandwich on its own does not make up enough of a substantial meal, as a Cornish pasty on its own doesn't make the cut. This would suggest that much like a Cornish pasty, a sandwich served with chips, a salad or another side dish would constitute a substantial meal and be allowed with alcohol.

However, there currently isn't any specific guidance on what exact dishes will be allowed so it's very much up to the pubs, bars and restaurants to dictate what is and isn't allowed under the new rules.

Is a pizza a substantial meal?

A whole pizza, like that served in a restaurant, would constitute a substantial meal especially if it is only being eaten by one person. This means that those looking to head to the pub for a couple of slices and a pint will be in luck in many places around England after the lockdown ends.

plates of pizza

Credit: Getty

In some cases, even just an extra large slice could constitute a substantial meal if it's big enough to be had on its own as a lunchtime or evening meal. If not, it's likely to have to be served with a significant side dish or as a starter to a larger course of meals.

Luckily though, if a whole pizza doesn't take your fancy, then there are some rules which suggest you can share some substantial meals with a friend depending on how many people are sharing.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has said that "a platter or dishes designed to be shared could constitute a meal for a couple of people, sharing a single meal or plate of food between a group would unlikely to be deemed as a substantial meal."

The rules also say that one household or support bubble can have a meal indoors together, but the Rule of Six does apply to those who have to eat outside.

Is soup a substantial meal?

Much like the rules for sandwiches, a bowl of soup would likely be considered a substantial meal if it was served as part of a larger dish - such as with bread on the side - or a set of courses as a starter.

So ultimately, it's entirely up to the restaurants, bar or pub to decide what makes up a substantial meal and whether they decided it's appropriate to serve alcohol under the new government guidelines for tier 2 restrictions.

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a health and wellbeing writer, working across the subjects of family, relationships, and LGBT topics, as well as sleep and mental health. A digital journalist with over six years  experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace is currently Health Editor for womanandhome.com and has also worked with Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more. After graduating from the University of Warwick, she started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness.