Meals and the Culture of Spain

Spanish Meals & Eating Customs

Variety of tapas; baby razor clams; tomato rubbed on bread, (pa amb tomÃtaquet-Catalan) or (pan con tomate- Spanish); bread; olives; white wine
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Spaniards love their food! In fact, the typical Spaniard probably eats more food than any one of us in the USA, but they take their time eating, spread their meals throughout the day, and walk between meals. Below is a brief description of a day of Spanish meals, from breakfast to dinner, with approximate mealtimes, as well as sample menus.

El Desayuno – Breakfast

  • The Smallest Meal of the Day
  • Continental Breakfast

    A typical breakfast might include café con leche - strong coffee with hot, frothy milk, bollos (sweet rolls) with jam, toast with jam or mild cheese, or simply "Maria" crackers dunked in hot milk. Some families buy sweet and lemony magdalenas from the neighborhood bakery, but it is now very common (and more economical) to buy bags of these petite, fluffy, cupcake-like cakes in the supermarkets.

    Generally, breakfast in Spain is eaten at home, before dashing off to work or school. However, you may see some workers duck into the closest cafeteria at around 10:00 am to enjoy a quick mid-morning "coffee break."

    Tapas - Little Spanish Meals

    Tapas are eaten well after breakfast, but before lunch, the large mid-afternoon meal! They are small plates, canapés or finger food may be warm or cold dishes, and vary greatly from region to region - season to season.

    • Tapas-Time generally includes bar-hopping to wine-taste and chat
    • A different Tapa is ordered at each stop
    • This time is just as much about socializing with friends and neighbors as it is about the quality of the tapas
    • Friends may have a circuit, making regular stops at favorite bars

    The Spanish love tapas so much, they made a verb out of it. The phrase Vamos a tapear!

    means “Let’s go eat tapas!” There are literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of tapas. A few of the most popular tapas are:

    La Comida – Lunch

    The midday meal or la comida as it is called in Spain is the largest meal of the day. It is definitely a large meal, usually with multiple courses. Traditionally, Spaniards have a 2-3 hour break from work or school in order to enjoy la comida and take a short nap or siesta, and the entire country closes up shop from about 2:00 pm to 4:30 or 5:00 pm. The siesta is a tradition that goes back centuries. When most people worked in agriculture and air conditioning did not exist, it is easy to understand why folks needed fuel from a large meal, and a rest from the hot Spanish sun before returning to farm work outside. Everyone in Spain enjoyed this afternoon break, from school kids to shop workers and government officials.

    Most Spaniards still enjoy a break and large meal, but life in Spain is changing. In larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, many people spend over an hour commuting to and from their work, making it impossible to go home for a meal and siesta.

    Because of this, Spanish government employees in Madrid now work a standard eight-hour day with a one-hour lunch break. Many large supermarket and retail chains in large cities don't close for lunch anymore. Most small shops still close to enjoy their meal and a break before re-opening in the late afternoon.

    • The Largest Meal of the Day
    • Multiple Courses with Wine
    • Eaten between 1:30 and 3:30 pm

    Below is a sample meal that you might find on a menu at a restaurant, or if you were invited to someone’s home for lunch:

    • Vegetable, Bean or Seafood Soup (many times rice, potato or pasta-based)
    • Fresh Fish or Seafood, Roast Chicken or Lamb, Fried Potatoes, Rabbit Stew, etc.
    • Green Salad or Vegetables
    • Dessert - Flan, light pastry, fresh fruit or ice cream
    • Coffee and Liqueur or Brandy

    Bread is ALWAYS on the Spanish table.

    It is plentiful and fresh and used to mop up sauces. Since Spanish lunches are always large, and courses come one at a time, pace yourself! Like Italians, Spaniards believe in taking their time and enjoying their meals, so la comida can last an hour and a half or longer.

    Since Spaniards love eggs and dairy foods, you will find that many desserts are made from fresh milk or cream. Fresh fruit is typical to see on the dessert menu and may be served with a soft cheese. Don’t forget an espresso shot – You’ll probably need it after the big lunch!

    La Merienda - Snack

    The late-afternoon snack in Spain is called la merienda and is necessary since lunch is done by 3:30 pm, but dinner isn't usually eaten for another five to six hours. La Merienda is especially important to children, who always seem to have lots of energy and play soccer in the streets, etc. La Merienda can be anything from a piece of French-style bread with a piece of chocolate on top to bread with chorizo sausage, ham or salami. It is eaten around 4:30 or 5:00 pm, and since dinner isn't served for at least another 3-4 hours, nobody worries that this snack will ruin the appetite for dinner!

    La Cena – Dinner

    • Smaller than Lunch
    • Light fare, such as an omelet or fish with a green salad
    • Eaten between 9:00 pm and Midnight

    A dinner might include fresh fish or seafood, a portion of roast chicken or lamb, with fried potatoes or rice. Portions are usually smaller, and plates are simpler. A simple and quick dish, commonly eaten at dinner is arroz cubano, which is a mound of white rice, topped with tomato sauce and a fried egg. Green salad and/or a vegetable dish are standard at lunch and dinner. A lighter dessert of fresh fruit or flan (Spanish vanilla custard) may also be eaten.

    Often times, rather than sitting down to dinner at a restaurant, a group of friends may decide to meet and tapear, (make the rounds at their favorite tapas bars) before seeing a movie, going to a club or show.

    After Dinner

    Spaniards are night owls. The typical Spaniard does not eat dinner until at least 9 o’clock in the evening and probably does not get to bed until close to midnight.

    On the weekends, on holidays and during the summer months, it wouldn’t be unusual for a Spanish family to turn in around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. So, after the late-night dinner, Spaniards continue their socializing in their neighborhood cafés and taverns or go out to a nightclub or pub.

    The last stop on the way home from an evening of fun might be to a churreria or a churro stand. Churros are fried pastries that look something like fried potatoes, though they have nothing to do with potatoes. The closest thing that we have in the USA would be fritters or donuts. However, fresh churros , bought from a street vendor or sidewalk café, served hot and sprinkled with sugar are delicious.

    To accompany your churros, hot chocolate is the drink of choice! Chocolate in Spain is NOT like the chocolate that you may have had in the USA. It´s not like Mexican chocolate either, which has cinnamon and other flavors in it. Spanish chocolate is made hot and very thick. It is usually made from fresh, whole milk, not a "just add water" chocolate packet. It’s sweet and so thick that you can practically stand a spoon in it