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What to Expect at Sunday Lunch in Spain

Dear Charlie,

The table is set for lunch with the salads in the middle. This lunch was salmorejo, so everyone had a bowl and we shared the salads.After you have been trying really hard to make Spanish friends (you know, to have the full experience and such), it shouldn’t be a surprise when someone who you hang out with invites you to do something like a Sunday lunch…at his parent’s house. First of all, we will say that we get how the whole meet-the-family experience in a different culture thing can feel overwhelming. However, it is totally normal for a twenty-odd(or even thirty-odd)-year-old Spaniard to live at home so this invitation is not really any more serious or meaningful because his parents will be there. Still, we understand it can be nerve wracking, especially if you don’t know what to expect, so we want to walk you through how a typical Sunday lunch in Spain tends to go.

Let’s start at the beginning. For Spanish people the act of gathering to eat is as important as, if not more important than, the eating itself. What does this mean? Even though they are inviting you over “for lunch,” the meal will be a social event that could go on for hours. When meeting with friends for food and drinks it is a time to talk and reflect, so if you get invited over don’t think it will be a quick thing and make sure you have enough time for the sobremesa, or the time “after the meal.”* Let’s break it all down a little bit…

Parts of a Sunday Lunch in Spain:

Before you go: Keep in mind that dietary restrictions aren’t as common in Spain―especially in the smaller cities―as you may be used to back home, so if you are vegetarian or cannot eat something specific, mention it beforehand! Also, if you offer to bring something, they will probably tell you ‘no,’ but a nice bottle of wine (somewhere between 5 and 15€ is fine) or something sweet will usually be accepted with a smile.

When you arrive: They will probably invite you over for lunch, some time between 2:30 and 3 pm, but you probably won’t eat until 3:30 or 4 pm. What will you do in the meantime? Normally you will meet and get to know the family while having a beer and some things to picar (appetizer-like foods such as nuts, chips, or even paté on toast if they are feeling fancy).

Pro-Tip: If you’re already not used to eating a later lunch, perhaps don’t skip breakfast the day of your family Sunday lunch as it can take awhile for the full meal to begin.

Salad para picar. When it’s time to eat: Once food is ready, you will all sit down together and they will offer you wine or beer. In Spain, it is customary to have a drink or two with lunch (and possibly more on the weekends), but if you don’t feel up for it, you can turn down the alcohol. You may be served two courses, a salad or soup course and a main dish, or they may bring everything out at once.

‘Family style’ eating is common in Spain and will most likely consist of the mother of the house serving you a massive plate of food (oftentimes more than you could possibly want to eat). The salad will probably be placed in the middle of the table, which means that everyone will stab their forks into the shared plate―don’t freak out, this is normal!

Pro-Tip: Personally, we would recommend not eating too fast unless you want another plate but do try to eat the whole thing if you can. You can also ask for a smaller plate to start with, but like moms everywhere, they will want to make sure you ‘get enough.’

 The sobremesa: Once you have finished with your meal, the plates will be cleared away. You probably won’t be allowed to help no matter how much you offer, you are a guest after all, so just sit tight until they bring the coffee and sweet treats out. These treats can be anything from fresh fruit to homemade cakes or packaged snacks. Around Christmas time, you will most certainly have polvorones and manteccados but during the rest of the year, it will be a surprise (unless you brought something to share).

Homemade plum cake (brought by me, the guest). The time after the meal will be slow and full of talking and laughing. Depending on the group, you may find yourself in a variety of conversations that you either understand or don’t, but the important thing is to spend time with the family, appreciating that you are able to be together. After the coffee and sweet bites are finished, it is likely that someone will bring out stuff to make copas (mixed drinks) or to sip local spirits like sherry from Jeréz or Málaga Virgen from Málaga.

Unless you have somewhere pressing to be around 6 or 7pm, you could find yourself with the family until 9 or 10 pm just chatting about life, dozing slightly in the chair, and enjoying each other’s company, until more dishes are served for dinner. Can it be a little overwhelming? Absolutely. Is it a worthwhile experience? Most definitely.

So, if you have the opportunity to attend a Spanish Sunday lunch, we say, take it! Go see what it is like to spend time with family in another country. Who knows, by the time you leave that Sunday, the once-strange-to-you family just may end up feeling like a second family!


*If you are meeting up midweek to go out with friends to a restaurant or a bar, the sobremesa will be more flexible. However, even if you go out for a Sunday lunch with a family, it will be a pretty big ordeal.

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