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According to my dictionary, the following words all mean the same thing: "Dinner":
[夜]{よる}ご[飯]{はん}, [晩]{ばん}ご[飯]{はん}, [晩飯]{ばんめし}, [晩食]{ばんしょく}, [夕]{ゆう}ご[飯]{はん}, [夕飯]{ゆうはん(ゆうめし)}, [夕食]{ゆうしょく}

A similar thing goes for "Breakfast" ([朝]{あさ}ご[飯]{はん}, [朝飯]{あさめし}, [朝食]{ちょうしょく}) and "Lunch" ([昼]{ひる}ご[飯]{はん}, [昼飯]{ひるめし}, [昼食]{ちゅうしょく})

What's the difference between them? Are they mostly interchangeable? Which ones are more commonly used or is it a matter of preference? etc.
My current understanding is that the ones that end in ご飯 are politer.

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「晩食」って、初めて聞きました・・・ww – user1016 Nov 26 '12 at 16:40
+「[夜飯]{よるめし}」? ([夜食]{やしょく} is something different) – user1016 Nov 26 '12 at 16:54
Let's not forget [晩餐]{ばんさん}. – Jesse Good Nov 26 '12 at 23:35
@JesseGood 晩餐 sounds to me like a feast/ごちそう... dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/jn2/181215/m0u Is [夕餉]{ゆうげ} archaic? e-rogers.jp/shop/home/502/item_img/211367_detailImage1.jpg – user1016 Nov 27 '12 at 12:48
up vote 11 down vote accepted

[夕・晩・夜] + [ご飯・飯・食]

(1) ~~ + ご[飯]{はん}
We have [夕]{ゆう}ご[飯]{はん}, [晩]{ばん}ご[飯]{はん}, [夜]{よる}ご[飯]{はん}.
I don't see much difference among them. We (especially children and women) use ~~ご飯 most in daily conversation. I normally use 晩ご飯 and 夜ご飯, and I think my mother uses 夕ご飯 too.

(2) ~~ + [食]{しょく}
We have [夕食]{ゆうしょく}. I didn't know [晩食]{ばんしょく} so I googled it, and I got some 30,000 results. It's less common so you wouldn't need to know 晩食 to pass JLPT. ([夜食]{やしょく} is "bedtime snack".)
~~食 sounds politer and more formal than ~~ご[飯]{はん} and ~~[飯]{はん/めし}. When you go to a hotel or an inn([旅館]{りょかん}), you will hear/see:


but not


(3) ~~ + [飯]{はん/めし}
We have [夕飯]{ゆうはん} and [晩飯]{ばんめし}. (I think 夕飯 can also be read ゆうめし but I think only guys use that word, in casual speech. Here again, I think you can pass JLPT without knowing the reading ゆうめし.)
As @istrasci-san mentions, "~~[飯]{めし}" sounds masculine and rough.
I googled 夜飯 and よるめし, and got quite a few results, though there're a lot of Chinese pages, too (Please see @Flaw's comment below). Anyway it's not so common so I think you can survive in Japan without knowing 夜飯/よるめし.
My mother sometimes uses お[夕飯]{ゆうはん} when talking to us or to our neighbors, like


but she wouldn't say:

「そろそろ、[夕食]{ゆうしょく}の支度しなくっちゃ。」, or
「そろそろ、[晩飯]{ばんめし}の支度しなくっちゃ。」unless she's trying to sound funny.

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In Chinese we have 隔夜飯 which means leftovers from yesterday's food. – Flaw Nov 27 '12 at 13:40
@Flaw あぁ、そういうわけだったのね~! – user1016 Nov 27 '12 at 22:18
So in general order of politeness, it goes: ~[食]{しょく}, ~ご[飯]{はん}, ~[飯]{はん} and then ~[飯]{めし}, with ~[飯]{はん} being the "neutral" politeness? – 小太郎 Nov 28 '12 at 4:37
@小太郎 I think (お)[夕飯]{ゆうはん} can be a bit politer than ~ご[飯]{はん}. So I think it'd be like... ~[食]{しょく}>~[飯]{はん}>(or≧?)~ご[飯]{はん}>~[飯]{めし} – user1016 Nov 28 '12 at 14:08
@小太郎, formality and politeness are not the same. ~食 is formal (not very, but a bit), i.e. you'd see it in newspapers etc. ~ご飯 is polite (although almost neutral) but not formal, and would therefore be more common in speech. These dimensions have some correlation, but are slightly different in nature. – dainichi Jul 9 '14 at 0:04

In my experience...

The ones ending in ご飯 are most polite. Actually, using them around friends may get you some strange looks. The ones ending in 飯(めし) seem very informal, somewhat "rough", and mainly used by men. The ones ending in seem to be the most neutral and most widely-used.

However, they may regionally have different acceptance levels and/or usage frequencies. I lived in Osaka, and there (as I mentioned), saying 晩飯 or 夕飯 is a little bit "rough" and only used by men. This may be different in other regions though.

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The ones ending in ~食【しょく】 are the most widely-used? They seem more formal to me, for some reason. I definitely agree about ~飯【めし】, though; they have a distinct masculine feel. – rintaun Nov 26 '12 at 18:49
What about 夜 vs 晩 vs 夕? – 小太郎 Nov 27 '12 at 9:16
I have to say that out here in the inaka I hear every kind of word for all of them used by just about everyone, so ultimately I think your choice of meal word won't really matter that much – ssb Nov 27 '12 at 15:53

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