Everyone needs three square meals a day, right? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? If you have said or believe either of these two statements, you are obviously not from Spain. The food in Spain is fantastic! I love it! The quality of the food is exceptional. However, meal times and what you eat at each meal is quite different from the way I was brought up in Canada.
Which reminds me, Dad, if you are reading this, stop now! Do not read any further! Your head will explode. I am concerned for your health.
My dad is quite regimented in the what he eats and when he eats it. When I was growing up, breakfast was eaten between 7:00 and 7:30AM. Lunch was at noon on the dot and dinner was eaten somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30PM. That was it. Any deviation from this schedule was highly frowned upon. That was just the way it was.
Before travelling to Spain, I knew that people there ate dinner later than the typical person from the USA or Canada, but it took me a little while to figure out exactly how late that actually was. Fortunately, I took Spanish lessons from a real live Spanish person in Valencia, Spain. Elisabeth was a great teacher and explained to me what the typical Valencian family’s eating habits are.
I was brought up on breakfast, lunch and dinner. When we got home from school in the afternoon around 3:00 or 3:30 we might be able to have a snack of an apple or something like that, but there was no deviating from the schedule!
People in Spain eat a little differently.
Here is a rundown of the typical daily meal schedule in Spain:
Desayuno – 6:00AM – 9:00AM – espresso and toast
Almuerzo – !0:00AM – 11:00AM – light snack
Comida – 2:00PM – 3:00PM – main meal of the day
Merienda – 4:00PM – 5:00PM – light snack, typically with something sweet
Cena – 9:00PM – 11:00PM – second largest meal of the day
The first meal is desayuno or breakfast. For desayuno you have coffee, and when I say coffee, I mean espresso. Café solo is straight espresso. Café cortado is equal parts of espresso and steamed milk. Café con leche is espresso with a bit more milk. With the coffee you might, and I emphasize the might, have some toast for breakfast. That’s it. “Do you ever have juice with breakfast?” I asked Elisabeth. “Ahhh….no,” was the reply. Only coffee and maybe some toast. The children have chocolate milk, the preferred brand is Cola-Cao. This is a little more chocolaty and malty and a little less sweet than Nesquik or something like that. The kids might have some cookies to dunk into that chocolate milk for breakfast. Elizabeth told me for a while there was a fad of eating cereal for breakfast, but that kind of died out.
The coffee is pretty good in Spain. Every restaurant, bar, cafeteria, etc. has a heavy duty espresso machine. That is just the way they do it. They don’t brew coffee in Spain, it is almost all espresso based where shots of coffee are produced under pressure. For Susan and I, we love it! However, if you really can’t drink anything but American style brewed coffee, try asking for an Americano, espresso with hot water added. The prices are quite reasonable too. An espresso or café solo goes for around 1 Euro ($1.15 USD) and a café cortado is around 1.4 Euro ($1.60 USD).
As you can imagine with such a light breakfast, you are going to get hungry before noon, so you have a snack around 10:00 – 11:00AM. This is typically a small light sandwich, maybe some bread and a piece of cheese or something like that. Kind of eaten on the run, you might take 10-15 minutes for this snack. Of course, another coffee is perfectly acceptable at this time as well. This meal is called almuerzo in Spain. Now in Latin America, almuerzo is synonomous with lunch, but not in Spain. Almuerzo is definitely a light snack eaten sometime between 10:00 and 11:00AM.
The big meal of the day is eaten around 2:00PM. It is called comida (which is a little confusing for me since comida in Spanish also means just plain food). In Spain, most of the country shuts down between about 2:30PM and 5:00PM. All but the largest department stores and grocery stores are closed during this time. This did take some getting used to for us. If you needed something at the drug store, grocery store, really any kind of store, or even visit a museum, you better go before 2:00PM or you would have to wait until 5:00PM when they reopened. In the tourist areas you find some restaurants that had crazy hours just for the tourists and would actually serve “lunch” starting at around noon, but most of the true local restaurants didn’t start serving actual meals until at least 1:30PM. Most didn’t open up until 2:00PM.
The most popular way to eat lunch at a restaurant is to order the Menu del dia, “Menu of the day.” This consisted of your choice of one of about four Primero Platos (first plate) and one of about 4 Secundo Platos (second plates). The menu usually also included coffee or a dessert and sometimes would include a glass of wine or glass of water for a fixed price. Prices ranged from about 10 Euros (11 USD) to about 15 euros (18 USD). The menu changed just about every day according to that particular restaurant. The choices are typically written on a chalkboard outside of the restaurant or written on a piece of paper tacked up in the restaurant.
This can be a little confusing for people from the USA and Canada. In the USA and Canada, the menu is a list of everything that can be ordered at the restaurant. It is usually at least four pages long (The restaurant “The Cheesecake Factory” has a menu that is 16 or 17 pages long, whew!) In Spain, you don’t ask to “see” the menu, you order the menu. The menu is whatever they are serving that particular day and is a limited choice. Many restaurants also had a “carte” or “card” that you could order specific items from. However, in most places you can’t order off of the card between 2:00PM and 4:00PM. Most places only serve the “menu” during this time. Items off the “carte” are only available after about 4:00 when they stop serving comida.
Comida is a leisurely affair and it typically takes one hour to one and a half hours to complete the meal. There is never any rush by the restaurant to try and move you out and “turn” the table. This brings up another point about eating in restaurants in Spain. The whole restaurant culture is different than in the USA. For example, in the USA the relationship between the server and the client is very different. In the USA, a good server is expected to anticipate the needs of the diner and come and ask you if you are ready to give your order. The server will be very attentive and make sure your water, coffee, soft drinks are refilled and to make sure you have enough butter, condiments, etc. “Good service” in the USA is viewed as being quick, bringing your food out quickly, making sure you get your check quickly, etc. In many restaurants you might still be eating your appetizer, soup or salad when the main entre comes out. Getting your food quickly is seen as a positive thing in the USA.What goes for “good service” in the USA would be considered very rude and pushy in Spain. After all, a waiter would never be so rude as to interrupt you to ask if you are ready to order. You are paying good money to have a nice meal and don’t want some pushy waiter trying to hurry you through your meal! In most places, the waiter will not come to take your order until you signal to them that you are ready to do so. To do this, you typically look in their direction, catch their eye, and motion to them to come over. This server is giving you very good service and not bothering you until you are ready. However, I can imagine many Americans thinking, “What poor service, it is taking forever for the waiter to come and take my order!” Realize that the server is giving you good service in his mind and waiting until you let him know you are ready to place your order. You absolutely would never, never, be brought your bill before asking for it. That would be extremely rude for a waiter to try and push you out of the restaurant by bringing you a bill before you specifically asked for it. When you are ready for your bill you again, catch the waiter’s eye and motion for them to come over. Or you can catch their eye and make a motion with your raised hand as if you were signing your name.
What about getting refills on water, soft-drinks, and coffee you ask? Shouldn’t the waiter be coming around to take care of this? Well, there is no such thing as free refills on soft-drinks or coffee in most of Europe. Most of the time you order water by the bottle, so if you want to order some more water, get your server’s attention and order another bottle, which you will pay for.
OK, so you have had your mid-day meal. It has taken about an hour and a half so now it is around 3:30PM. Time to take a little nap or just relax for a while until you have to go back to work at 5:00PM or until the stores, museums and other things open back up again.
Dinner, or cena, is served around 8:00 or 9:00PM, so somewhere between about 5:00 and 6:00PM you are probably getting hungry again. This is the time for the small afternoon meal called merienda. It is similar to almuerzo and could consist of a small snack of a sandwich, but in the afternoon it is more typical to have something sweet, like a croissant, piece of cake or a tart. The kitchen in virtually all restaurants closes between 3:30 and 4:00PM and won’t open again until about 8:00PM. They will still serve light things like cold foods, tapas, and sandwiches during this time.
Cena, the last meal of the day is typically eaten between 8:00PM and 10:00PM. On the weekend, you probably wouldn’t think of eating cena any earlier than 10:00PM. During the week, school age children will typically have their dinner a little early, like 8:00PM while the adults will typically eat closer to 9:00 or 10:00PM.
Cena is a little bit of a lighter meal. Typically, you will have some sort of meat or fish and vegetables. You won’t eat “calienties” at cena – things like pasta, rice, etc. Paella is a famous Spanish dish that consists of rice, saffron, and some sort of meat or seafood and maybe a few vegetables. Valencians will be quick to tell you that the paella in Valencia is the best in all of Spain since that is where paella was invented. Most of the restaurants serve paella, but Spaniards would never eat paella at night for the evening meal. I mean that’s crazy! That would be like eating spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast.
So there you go, now you know how to eat meals like a Spaniard! I must admit, it took us a little while to get used to, but once we were in the routine, it was quite pleasant. It definitely leads to a more relaxed pace of life and really enjoying your food.