Guide To Spanish Meal Times And Habits
EATING HABITS IN SPAIN: WHEN AND HOW
Spanish eating habits and times can take you by surprise if you don’t get some information about them before you come to Spain. After all, when traveling, food is one of the most important things to plan, and often meals and eating habits change from country to country (or even from city to city!).
Many times during my Barcelona tours people ask me how Spanish mealtimes work and when to go to a restaurant to find locals. The other day, the Galloway were telling me how surprised they were when the restaurant was empty by the time they arrived, but packed by the time they left…
These are the most common Spanish mealtimes:
WHAT? Coffee, tea, milk (plain, sweetened or with cocoa) or juice, with toast topped with butter and jam, or nutella, or cheese or ham. People also do cookies, muffins, croissants or other bakeries, fruit or cereals.
HOW MUCH FOOD? Despite the Spanish adagio that recommends to “Have breakfast like a king, eat like a prince and dinner like a beggar”, most Spaniards don’t have a big breakfast. It’s one drink and one solid from the list below and you are good to go. Although in the weekends we might splurge a bit more. And then that might also include hot chocolate with churros!
WHERE? Most people have breakfast at home, but it’s not unusual to have it at some local cafeteria, bar or bakery on the way to work or school. You’ll rarely see people on the streets sipping on their coffee to go. We love to seat down, even if for just a few minutes. When in a hurry, we have our coffee on the bar counter, otherwise we get a table. These are my favorite breakfast places in Barcelona.
Breakfast survival tips
ANY CHANCE OF ENGLISH BREAKFAST? That’s rare in Spain. If you are into eggs and sausages and they don’t include them in your hotel breakfast buffet, the closest alternative is a French omelet baguette sandwich, served in most bars. Sausages are harder to find, though. And definitely not beans.
WHAT ABOUT BRUNCH? I’m afraid brunch is a hipster kind of thing. There is no “typical Spanish” alternative to brunch, but now you can find American-style brunch spots in most large cities in Spain… but mostly on Sunday, these are the top brunch spots in town.
WHAT IS A ESMORZAR DE FORQUILLA? That’s a Catalan type of breakfast that could almost qualify as an early heavy lunch… It’s basically a seat-down breakfast where you’ll eat an earthy stew, or other elaborated Catalan recipe that requires cutlery to eat it. While not common in the rest of spain, here is where you can find the best “esmorzar de forquilla” in Barcelona.
Midday snack, coffee break or tentempié
WHAT? Coffee or tea, a sandwich, a bakery or bun, a piece of fruit or some other snack.
There’s two main reasons for Spanish to make a midday snack. One is hanger: Assuming you had an early breakfast and won’t eat lunch until 2PM or later, you are likely to be hungry at some point.
For instance, kids at school have a 30 minute recess, and they’ll eat a bite they bring from home. That helps them keep going until lunchtime. That’s why some people call snacks a tentempié (a word that is also used for roly-poly toys).
The other reason is needing a break, and that applies mostly to adults. Most people will take a quick 10-minute break to get a coffee or non-alcoholic drink. Such break might or not involve solid food. BTW, you’ll want to learn how to order coffee in Spain.
In the weekends or when we aren’t working, we might also use the midday snack to socialize and meet friends with the excuse of “having a coffee” together. In the end you won’t be ordering strictly coffee – it’s totally normal to order some other non-alcoholic drink, and solid foods are optional.
Aperitivo or Vemouth
WHAT?A drink and potato chips, olives, canned cockles or mussels, crackers, Spanish ham shavings...
Tomar un aperitivo or tomar un vermut surprisingly doesn’t mean actually drinking an apéritif or vermouth. It’s about eating and socializing. And yes, drinking too, but the choices are not limited to these two types of drinks: it can be anything from wine or beer to soda, juice or water.
HOW? At home, we’ll serve it just before lunch while we wait for the food to be ready, and we’ll often stand and chat with each other rather than seat. On a socializing setting you can meet friends for an aperitivo at some bar, then each one goes back home (or to a restaurant) to eat.
Or you might have meet with friends for a morning activity and wrap it up with a vermouth before partying ways. In bars, you have your aperitivo seating on a table. Couple and triads might also stand by the bar counter.
Sometimes we talk about “hacer un pica pica“. It’s pretty much the same, although in this case the food can be more ellaborated and include warm finger foods such as Spanish omelet or croquettes.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE WITH EATING TAPAS? That’s a tricky question, because there’s many ways of eating tapas. You can learn more about that in this post about the meaning of tapas I wrote some time ago.
In some cities of Spain they’ll give you a free bite with each alcoholic drink. And the more drinks you order, the better your next free tapa will get. That’s quite close to the vermouth concept… except that when you go for a vermouth you are charged for the food! BTW, did you know in Barcelona there are bars specializing in serving aperitivos? Here are our favorite vermuterias in Barcelona.
WHAT? Salad, pasta, rice, beans or soup as starter, then fish, meat, poultry or eggs as main course. A typical meal also includes desert and coffee. Yes, lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain!
HOW LONG? Spanish people like to seat down and eat slowly. That means lunch takes an average of 1 hour. Let’s say 45 minutes if you only have one hour break and you need to go to the nearest bar and get a “menú del día”: a set menu of day specials at an affordable price. It’s cheaper and faster than eating à la carte.
During the weekends, instead, there is no menú del dia, and the traditional Spanish meal will be longer (1.5 to 2 hours), either in a restaurant or at home with friends and family.
CAN YOU HAVE A TAPAS LUNCH? Definitely! Not at home, because it’d be too much work to cook lots of different dishes. But you can meet friends and go to a tapas restaurant for lunch. You’ll seat down and order a bunch of platters to share. So it’s more fun to do it with more than two people: it’s a social meal!
WHAT’S THE SOBREMESA? It’s something Spanish people do in the weekends or when on vacation and not in a hurry. After desert and coffee we’ll stay at the table chatting and socializing. In restaurants they won’t dare interrupting you by bringing the bill unasked: that’d be very rude!
So unless you’ve been told in advance that there are shifts for the tables and that you need to be gone by X, you are welcome to stay after your meal is over. But when you see the waiters starting to clean up ready for closing, it’s your cue to leave.
AND THEN SIESTA, RIGHT? Noooooooo! My friend, siesta is a myth – at least in Barcelona. Only toddlers, retired people and pregnant ladies that aren’t working in the afternoon will nap after lunch. Or maybe if you are on vacation and it’s really hot outside and you ate a plentiful meal you might want to snooze for a while.
So why are shops closed? Easy: in Spain eating is more sacred than sleeping! From 2 to 3pm shops close so the staff can eat. And since parents won’t pick up kids from school until 4 or 5pm, there’s no one shopping until then. They’ll rather have a longer lunch break and stay open until later in the evening.
Merienda, the afternoon snack
WHAT? A sandwich, a bakery or bun, a piece of fruit or some other snack.
Just like the midday snack, it’s a small meal that helps you keep up until the next big meal. It’s usually a kids thing, something they’ll do right as they get out of school. But adults can do it occasionally, either as a coffee break, or as an excuse to meet friends and treat yourself to a cake.
The merienda is also the perfect time for a hot chocolate and churros when the weather is cold. Although it’s not something to do every day but a weekend treat. BTW, here is where to find the best hot chocolate and churros in Barcelona.
When eating out, even if most restaurants open around 8PM, locals hardly ever arrive earlier than 9PM. Expect it to be empty (or only full with tourists) until 9.30, but by the time you leave it’ll be buzzing with people.
WHAT? Soup or vegetables as starter,. Fish, eggs or small bites (sausage, croquettes, empanadillas) as main. Dessert is optional and could be some cheese, a piece of fruit or a yogurt (or cake or ice cream in restaurants, where some people might also order a coffee – decaf or not).
While at home people tries to keep dinner lighter, when we go out to a restaurant (which is not as often as Americans do, but a special occasion), we often eat as much as we do for lunch. Then we go for a stroll before heading home, to help digestion…
WHAT DOES RESOPÓN MEAN? This might be a word mostly used in Catalan-speaking areas, because it comes from “sopar“, dinner in Catalan. And it’s a meal that can be eaten right before going to sleep if it’s been a while since you had dinner. It’s usually something light that doesn’t require much cooking, but… that’ll depend on how hungry you are!
IS THERE ANYTHING LIKE AFTERWORK DRINKS BEFORE DINNER? I’d say it’s a new imported trend, mostly for young people and singles. Everyone else wants to get back home after work and get some rest.
AND WHAT ABOUT AFTER DINNER? If you are planning a night out partying, going for some drinks after dinner is the beginning of your plan. Spaniards call this “ir de copas” (going for glasses), and that’s what they do between the end of their dinner and 1 or 2AM, when they’ll head to the clubs.
The reason is that no one wants to be the only person in the dance floor. So everyone hangs out at the bars until 1AM or 2AM before heading to the club. And since clubs (in pre-pandemic times) closed around 6AM, there was no rush to get there.
More tips to survive the local food habits in Spain
If you need to eat outside of these hours…
Mealtimes in Spain are late, and not everyone is ready to wait until locals are hungry to go to a restaurant. If that’s your case, the easiest choice will be tapas bars, usually opening either at breakfast time or noon and serving food non-stop until late night. Spaniards eat tapas any time of the day. And in this other post you’ll find some restaurants open for early meals in Spain (Barcelona).
And if you don’t have much time…
Barcelona has plenty of gorgeous bakeries where you can get a sandwich or some other quick bite: Look around, I’m sure you have one in less than a couple of blocks from where you are!
Also, supermarkets often carry sandwiches and ready-made salads in their refrigerated sections.
Food and money matters
Taxes / VAT
Good news! In Spain VAT and any other taxes are included in the price shown in the menus. No need to use a calculator to figure out how much you’ll be paying. The tax amount should also be displayed at the end of the bill, and the VAT currently applied to food is 10%.
Tipping is optional in Spain and locals only do that as a reward to good service. How much to tip depends on many factors, so let me refer you to our post about tipping in Spain for more info.
They’ll often wait until they are done eating or when they are having cofffe at the end, most of the times not before. And they’ll ask their table companions if they mind them smoking, but unfortunately they won’t care about people in the surrounding tables.
And some last trivia about Spanish eating habits
Why do people eat so late in Spain?
That is a good story! If you look at a map of the world time zones, you’ll see that Spain is in a time zone that doesn’t match with its geographical area. We should be one hour less than we are!
The reason is that after the General Franco won the Spanish Civil war and started a fascist dictatorship he thought it’d be more convenient to be in the same time of his allies, the nazis. So he forced Spain to adopt the same time frame of Germany. And we are still there, even if the country is now a democracy.
It seems that people preferred to keep eating at the times their body was used to. So instead of starting to eat according to their new time zone, they just push their day schedules one hour later. How weird is that?
Saying gracias to your waiter when they bring your order, or to your host when you are served, is nice and appreciated. Also, put your cellphone away during meal times.
Old people will tell you off for putting your elbows on the table (but younger people don’t care). And only waiters in high end restaurants will pay attention to how you leave your cutlery (knife and fork parallel across the dish means you are done and they can take it away). Eating with your mouth open or making awkward noises is not acceptable.
In restaurants it’s OK to leave food in your plate if you didn’t like it or are too full. If you are invited to someone’s home try to politely refuse what you won’t eat before they serve it to you (but old grandmas will give you a hard time with that anyway). It’s also OK to scrape the plate clean with the help of some bread (no licking!).
Eating with your fingers is allowed for certain foods and appetizers such as olives, chips and some tapas that aren’t saucy or greasy. Sometimes toothpicks are provided for such foods and it’s best to use them. Other than that, use your cutlery.
How are you planning to adapt to mealtimes in Spain during your trip?
Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.
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