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I see both used seemingly interchangeably, what is curious to me is that the same person will sometimes use one over the other.

Example sentences: "我想吃晚饭" or "我在煮早餐"

Looking into the roots of the words I see that while both have the meaning of a meal, 饭 is associated with cooked rice while 餐 is associated with the action of eating.

  1. When is one more appropriate?
  2. Does using 饭 imply that the meal will contain rice?
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1. Both. 餐 sounds a limited little more formal in Mandarin. While in Cantonese, 饭 is seldom used for this phrase. 2. No. – Stan Feb 27 '14 at 1:39
up vote 3 down vote accepted
  1. Informally in daily life, we talk about eat meals by referring to 吃饭。 In a formal situation, i.e. hotel, meeting, we use 餐 mostly in writing.
  2. 饭's meaning is quite flexible. You can use 饭 to refer to a general meal. However if you talk about specifically what in the meal, 饭 should be used only for boiled rice.

我想吃午饭。 ---> A general meal

我今天午饭吃了米饭和汤。 ---> food you eat in a general meal

In Cantonese, they use 餐 referring to a general meal, 饭 for the boiled rice

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