Spanish Style Eating
So, you thought the only difference about eating in Spain would be the content of the dishes? Think again! Food is a culture in and of itself and so understanding the general traditions and expectations when it comes to eating in Spain will save you some embarrassment and headaches.
First things first, time and content—the typical Spanish eating schedule can be broken down roughly into this timetable:
Desayuno (breakfast—times vary, anywhere from whenever you wake up and 12 pm is acceptable):
What to expect to eat: As you will quickly notice from the average ofertas de desayuno, Spaniards consider a balanced breakfast to be a piece of toast and coffee, maybe fresh-squeezed orange juice if you’re getting really fancy. You can top your tostada with a wide range of savory or sweet options and order you coffee in a variety of ways or get a tea or cola cao (hot chocolate) to spice it up. (Read more about breakfasts here.)
How to eat it: The main thing to know is that this is not a traditionally important meal and many locals will have their breakfast standing at the bar counter. Meeting for breakfast certainly happens—but more so among the guiri or older crowd. Still, you will see co-workers grabbing coffee together between 10 and 12ish because, duh!, workers get a coffee break in which they are totally allowed to go out to a café and enjoy themselves for a half hour or two…
Comida (Lunch—served between 1 and 4 pm):
What to expect to eat: This meal is the biggest of the day and could consist of an appetizer, two main courses, and dessert if you eat out or even more if you attend a Sunday meal with a Spanish family! Be prepared to be stuffed and absolutely ready to take advantage of the siesta hour!
How to eat it: This is the most important meal of the day and, unless you’re in a major cosmopolitan city, you will see that most businesses, doctor’s offices, everything shut down in respect for the family meal. It is expected that, as a human right, everyone should be able to go home and eat mom’s home cooking—and trust me, they do! You won’t believe how many 30-somethings I met who even had their own apartments, but went home every day to eat their comida at mom and dad’s place, but that’s another conversation.
Merienda (snack time—between 5 and 7 pm):
After that huge meal and a nap, it’s only logical that Spaniards are in need of a pick-me-up coffee around this time. Even if you don’t need the coffee, this is an ideal time to grab a pastry, crepe, or light snack and a cup of tea while respecting the traditional eating schedule.
Cena (dinner—typically between 9 and 11 pm):
What to expect to eat: When I first moved to Spain, I tended to eat a normal American-sized dinner but I have since come to realize that is no longer necessary for me. If I maintain the time table of my other meals, by the time dinnertime rolls around I really only want a salad or surtido (an assortment of cheese and meat that I pair with olives or hummus and picos―one of my favorite EASY, make-your-own-Spanish-style-meals-at-home options).
How to eat it: Yes, this meal is so late to us guiris, but believe me, with time you get used to it and actually love it! I’ve slowly grown to appreciate this later meal which can be as big or as small as you choose. Look forward to throwing together a nice assortment of cold-cuts and finger food with friends, ordering in from JustEat, or throwing back some cañas with tapas until midnight.
Well, there you have it! Of course, understanding timing and getting a general idea of what Spaniards tend to eat at these meals is just the beginning but at least it will allow you to find food on a typical schedule, rather than getting conned into tourist traps and guiri pricing because of the “unusual” timing you want to eat at. Buen Provecho!