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Eating in Spain: Spanish Eating Habits

Spaniards love good food and enjoy it as many as five times a day! Additionally, the meal times in Spain are later than the average European meal times, with dining establishments opening later as well. If you’re visiting Barcelona (or moving there), you’ll soon encounter these differences in eating habits. But these aren’t the only ones! If you want to get to know Spanish eating culture better and be well-prepared for your trip, keep reading. Today, I’ll give you a glimpse into the Spanish kitchen with my personal experiences and tips!

Spanish Eating Habits and Food Culture

Eating and cooking in Spain is an essential part of the culture and everyday life. We have hot meals twice a day! Spanish mothers generally still play a decisive role in Spanish households. At home, it was my mother (and still is) who always decided what we would eat. My parents do grocery shopping once a week at the local market and once a week at the supermarket. Every day, they buy fresh baguette from the bakery and go to the nearby supermarket for little things that run out.

The Spanish Kitchen: What Do Spaniards Eat?

Spain enthusiasts have known it for a long time: Spain has one of the best cuisines in the world! Tourists often think that Spanish dishes don’t extend beyond tapas, paella, tortilla, cerveza, and sangría. But the reality is that we in Spain enjoy one of the most diverse and rich cuisines, which, influenced by the Mediterranean diet, is also one of the healthiest!

The Spanish kitchen uses fresh, seasonal products. Cooking is done only with olive oil, and dishes are seasoned with onions, garlic, salt, pepper, saffron, and parsley.

The Spanish cuisine is also very varied, using the best of sea and land: from fish and seafood (such as sardines, cod, plaice, sea bass, squid, and cockles), to meat (such as beef and pork, chicken, lamb, duck, and rabbit), grains (as in bread, rice, and pasta dishes), vegetables (such as tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, and mushrooms), and lots of fruit and nuts.

With every hot meal, a glass of wine, beer, or water is served, along with baguette.

Spain also has important culinary differences between regions. What you find on the menu of a Catalan restaurant can be completely different from what’s offered in the Basque Country or in Andalusia. These regional differences make the Spanish kitchen so rich and varied.

Especially in the inland areas of Spain, people eat hearty fare, like robust bean and potato stews with sausage and meat. On the coast, meals are lighter, featuring ingredients like vegetables, rice, and fish.

Spaniards still take the time to cook extensively with fresh ingredients and then enjoy the meal together. And when they can’t do this due to lack of time, Spaniards still eat out, but in a leisurely and enjoyable manner.

Spanish Meal Times: When Do Spaniards Eat?

The meal times for all Spanish meals are later than the average European meal times. Dining establishments open later in the afternoon and remain open until late in the evening. It’s not unusual to meet with friends at a restaurant around 10:00 PM for dinner!

Comparing the eating times of a typical Dutch family, where I also lived, with those of my Spanish family, there are significant differences. At my home, we had breakfast at 7:30 or 8:00 AM (depending on when you had to be at school or work), while lunch wasn’t served until around 2:00 PM.

Dinner was never earlier than 9:00 PM, coinciding with the news on TV. On weekends, we always took the time to relax and often ate much later. To stave off hunger between lunch and dinner, we always had a tasty snack around 6:00 PM.

Spanish Meals: What and When Do Spaniards Eat?

As mentioned, Spaniards usually eat five times a day. Interestingly, they have breakfast twice during the morning and eat hot meals twice (at lunch and dinner). Contrary to other countries, lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain.

Breakfast (desayuno)

Breakfast in Barcelona
Breakfast in Barcelona

The morning breakfast, called ‘esmorzar‘ in Catalan or ‘desayuno‘ in Spanish, is often had at home or in a café. It usually consists of a piece of toasted baguette or tostada, spread with butter or olive oil and topped with cheese or cold cuts. Some choose jam, but don’t expect chocolate sprinkles or peanut butter! A croissant or sweet pastry can also be part of breakfast.

It’s typically accompanied by a cup of coffee with milk (café con leche), fresh orange juice (zumo de naranja), or just milk (leche).

A typical Spanish breakfast, especially popular on weekends, includes churros (fried dough).

Mid-morning Snack (almuerzo)

Mid-morning snack in Barcelona
Mid-morning snack in Barcelona

Because breakfast often isn’t enough to last until lunchtime, Spaniards eat something around 10:00 AM. It’s a sort of second breakfast known as ‘esmorzar’ in Catalan and ‘almuerzo’ in Spanish, often a baguette sandwich (bocadillo).

During this second breakfast in Spain, people often drink a beer or otherwise a cup of coffee. Tea is less popular in Spain.

For schoolchildren, this is consumed during the break on the playground. If you have a job, you often take time during almuerzo to have a coffee with colleagues at the local bar and take a break.

Lunch (comida)

Lunch in Barcelona
Lunch in Barcelona

Lunch, known as ‘dinar’ in Catalan or ‘comida’ in Spanish, is the most important meal of the day and usually consists of a starter, a main course, and a dessert. Lunch is eaten between 2:00 PM and 3:30 PM and can be a very elaborate affair, especially on weekends.

If you work for a Spanish employer, you usually get at least an hour to have lunch (children at school have even 2.5 free hours for it). Spaniards don’t just eat lunch quickly behind a computer, but outside or at home.

If you dine at a restaurant on weekdays, there’s often a lunch menu where you can order multiple courses for a reasonable price.

This “menú del día” dates back to the times of General Franco, who legislated that all hardworking workers should be able to get a good, nutritious meal at a reasonable price on workdays. That’s why you still find restaurants where you can get a tasty lunch menu for about €10-€15.

On weekends and during the summer, it’s very typical to have an aperitif (called vermut or aperitivo) before lunchtime. This can include small tapas like berberechos (cockles), olivas (olives), and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), enjoyed with wine, beer, or a glass of cola. This can happen both at home and at the local bar.

Evening Snack (merienda)

Merienda in Barcelona
Merienda in Barcelona

Around 5:00 or 6:00 PM, it’s time for a tasty snack, known as ‘berenar’ in Catalan, or ‘merienda’ in Spanish. This snack usually consists of cookies, croissants, or other sweets, enjoyed with a cup of coffee or tea.

For children, this is also the time to drink a delicious Colacao (cocoa powder with milk) and eat a bocadillo (sandwich). Those who prefer healthier options might choose fruit, a granola bar, or nuts instead. This snack is often necessary because dinner won’t be served until around 9:00 PM.

Children particularly enjoy their merienda at a granja; these are traditional shops specializing in dairy products where you can now find treats like chocolate con churros (fried dough strips with chocolate), melindros (ladyfingers), magdalenes (type of muffins), arroz con leche (rice pudding), mel i mató (honey with cheese), or flan con nata (custard with cream). It’s not unusual to see Spanish granjas filled with families between 5:00 and 7:00 PM!

Another option if you’re not at home or if you’ve arranged to meet friends around this time, is to enjoy a snack at a bar. You might order some tapas or pintxos to accompany your drink and satisfy your hunger.

Dinner (cena)

Dinner in Barcelona
Dinner in Barcelona

Dinner is quite late for most non-Spaniards: Spaniards start their dinner around 9:00 or 9:30 PM. On weekends and in summer, it’s not uncommon to eat even after 10:00 PM. If you’re dining out, it’s also typical to be at the restaurant around 10:00 PM.

The dinner, called ‘sopar’ in Catalan and ‘cena’ in Spanish, is usually lighter than lunch (unless you’re dining out), with a main course of meat or fish, and some vegetables or a salad. Other options include eating an omelette or a hearty soup with baguette. For dessert, a piece of seasonal fruit is common. Simple, yet delicious, this ensures you don’t go to bed with a too full stomach!

Enjoying a Meal in Spain: Some Tips

  • Eating or organizing a dinner in Spain is an important event that Spaniards devote a lot of time to. If you’re invited to a dinner, it’s good to bring a bottle of wine or dessert.
  • Eating out is very normal for Spaniards. Lunching out is usually out of necessity because you work far from where you live, while dinner in the evening is more of a social activity.
  • When dining at a restaurant in Spain, keep in mind the kitchen’s opening hours. During lunchtime, they’re usually open between 2:00 PM and 4:30 PM, and in the evening from 9:00 PM to midnight. However, in big cities like Barcelona, you’ll find restaurants with non-stop open kitchens where you can also eat at European times.
  • Meals in Spain are often very extensive, with a starter (primero or entrantes), main course (segundo or plato principal), and a dessert (postre). A starter often involves a salad or soup, while you order fish or meat as a main course, and something sweet or fruit for dessert.
  • Pan, vino y sobremesa’ (bread, wine, and lingering after a meal): these three are part of Spanish eating culture. It’s normal to eat bread with your meal and drink wine, even during lunch. In Spain, people don’t like to eat quickly and leave immediately. Lingering after a meal is common, and most restaurants won’t mind. During the sobremesa, you order some coffee or a dessert wine and let your food settle while enjoying each other’s company.
  • Tipping at a restaurant in Spain is not mandatory and is mainly done when you are really satisfied with the quality of the food and service. If you decide to tip, you can leave some coins, round up the bill, or add 5% to 10%.
  • What do you do if you’re hungry and it’s too early for dinner? Do as the Spaniards do and have a merienda or snack. You might go to a bakery and buy some croissants or sit at a bar and order some tapas. Although meal times in Spain and most other countries are quite different, eating and drinking in Spain is never a problem: most bars are open all day and always have something to eat (sweet pastries, tapas, bocadillos (sandwiches), and other small meals you can order).

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Hello! My name is Marta, and I am a born and raised Barcelonian. I love introducing people to Barcelona, especially the Barcelona known to locals. In Barcelona, I am always looking for fun places and tips that I can then share with you, with the goal of helping you experience Barcelona like a local.

Marta Rubio

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