The term “canteen” is used in two different senses. In the first sense, a canteen is a bottle which is used to carry water or other liquids, and in the second, a canteen is a facility which serves food in a cafeteria-style setting. Both uses are from the same root word, cantina, which is Italian for “wine cellar.” The word was adopted to refer generally to refreshments and an area where soldiers could obtain refreshments, and over time the usage split into two different meanings and spread to civilian society.
In the sense of a container, a canteen is designed to provide someone with a portable supply of water or liquid. The container may include a cup which nestles into the housing, or a mouthpiece which is built into the container. In order to function effectively, the canteen must be able to be tightly sealed, and some have a layer of insulation which reduces temperature changes and loss of fluids from evaporation. Soldiers on the march use canteens, as do hikers, athletes, and other people who might need water on the go.
Canteens in the sense of a place where food is prepared and eaten are used to serve food on an institutional level. Militaries, schools, and large offices may use canteens to meet the food needs of their workforces and students. A typical canteen is a facility in which diners walk along a food line with trays which can be filled with various food items. Diners then seat themselves, eat, and bus their dishes and trays at the end of the meal.
Food service is not a high priority at canteens. The goal is to provide food which meets nutritional recommendations and hopefully satisfies the taste of diners. The food is prepared in large batches, and the food handlers stay behind the counter to dish out food, rather than walking around the dining room to bring plates out. The canteen may also include self service drink containers, fruit bowls, and so forth.
In addition to remaining in a fixed location, a canteen can also be mobile. Mobile canteens are used to provide food quickly to disaster workers and other temporary work crews, along with members of the military who are deployed on active duty. Organizations which use mobile canteens may run the canteen out of a series of trailers, or have large trucks packed with canteen equipment, tables, and tents for shelter so that an eating facility can be quickly erected wherever it might be needed.