Eastern Fasting Cheat Sheet
This is a great summary of the traditional Eastern fasting guidelines, courtesy of Abba Moses, a knowledgable Orthodox priest.
There are many exceptions to the broad rules given here, such as when a major feast day, or the patronal feast of a parish, falls during a fasting period. Consult your priest and your parish calendar for details. St. Innocent Press publishes wall and pocket calendars that give the fasting rule for every day of the year. The Saint Herman Calendar, published annually by St. Herman of Alaska Press, is also a good day-by-day guide.
For the Christian, all foods are clean. When no fast is prescribed, there are no forbidden foods.
Unless a fast-free period has been declared, Orthodox Christians are to keep a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday. The following foods are avoided:
Meat, including poultry, and any meat products such as lard and meat broth.
Fish (meaning fish with backbones; shellfish are permitted).
Eggs and dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, etc.)
Olive oil. A literal interpretation of the rule forbids only olive oil. Especially where olive oil is not a major part of the diet, the rule is sometimes taken to include all vegetable oils, as well as oil products such as margarine.
Wine and other alcoholic drink. In the Slavic tradition, beer is often permitted on fast days.
Sad to say, it is easy to keep the letter of the fasting rule and still practice gluttony. When fasting, we should eat simply and modestly. Monastics eat only one full meal a day on strict fast days, two meals on "Wine and oil" days (see below). Laymen are not usually encouraged to limit meals in this way: consult your priest.
The Church has always exempted small children, the sick, the very old, and pregnant and nursing mothers from strict fasting. While people in these groups should not seriously restrict the amount that they eat, no harm will come from doing without some foods on two days out of the week — simply eat enough of the permitted foods. Exceptions to the fast based on medical necessity (as with diabetes) are always allowed.
So that the Body and Blood of our Lord may be the first thing to pass our lips on the day of communion, we abstain from all food and drink from the time that we retire (or midnight, whichever comes first) the night before. Married couples should abstain from sexual relations the night before communion.
When communion is in the evening, as with Presanctified Liturgies during Lent, this fast should if possible be extended throughout the day until after communion. For those who cannot keep this discipline, a total fast beginning at noon is sometimes prescribed.
The Lenten Fast
Great Lent is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year.
Week before Lent ("Cheesefare Week"): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
The rule for this variable-length fast is more lenient than for Great Lent.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday: Strict fast.
Tuesday, Thursday: Oil and wine permitted.
Saturday, Sunday: Fish, oil and wine permitted.
This is the rule kept by many monasteries during non-fasting seasons.
Fasting during the two-week Dormition fast is like that during most of Great Lent:
Monday-Friday: Strict fast.
Saturday and Sunday: Wine and oil permitted.
During the early part of the fast, the rule is identical to that of the Apostles' Fast. During the latter part of the fast, fish is no longer eaten on Saturdays or Sundays. In different traditions, this heightening of the fast may be for either the last week or the last two weeks.
The Eve of Theophany, the Exaltation of the Cross and the Beheading of John the Baptist are fast days, with wine and oil allowed.
Complementing the four fasting seasons of the Church are four fast-free weeks:
Nativity to Eve of Theophany.
Week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee.
Bright Week — the week after Pascha.
Trinity Week — the week after Pentecost, ending with All Saints Sunday.