Let’s talk about food culture in Spain

Spanish tapas: squid, chicken wings, meatballs, olives, etc.

Raise your hand if you haven’t heard of paella, sangría or tortilla española.


Unless you’ve never been to this country before (and there’s nothing wrong with that) or you don’t like to try different foods, I bet you have heard of these three Spanish dishes (sangría is a drink, but it contains so much fruit, that it counts as dessert not suitable for children) and maybe tried them before.

And God forbid you are like the husband and I were in our 20s (yesterday, like) and thought everything in Spain were tapas.

No, Spanish food is so MUCH more than that.

(Tapas is just a small portion to share with friends you’re having a drink with. They’re not a meal, unless, of course, you’re out and about, have lots of drinks and end up eating loads of tapas. Then it is a meal, but that’s another story.)

Spanish food is varied, fresh and healthy. Yes, Andalucian fried fish is healthy, too. And if I say so, so it must be true.

All joking aside, it is important that you know at least the names of some typical Spanish dishes, because you’re going to see those everywhere. From your local, neighbourhood bar, to the poshest restaurant you may go to some day. Well, of course these restaurants always call their dishes something fancy, but in the end they are the all-time beloved dishes you’re looking for.

So let’s start with

The five meals in Spain and times to eat


Yes, 5 meals, but obviously this is a generalisation and not everybody has five meals every day. It depends pretty much on the family and individual. So, let’s dive into what is a typical meal in Spain so that when you arrive, know what is going on.

I certainly didn’t have a clue and a merienda was a novelty for me and my kids. It took me years to institutionalise it in my house. Now it’s pretty much impossible to get rid of it. Teenagers, you know?

Breakfast 1

First meal in the day and it’s not the big affair we have in Latin America. Just a coffee and toasted bread with oil (yes, aceite de oliva), maybe some tomatoe (tomate) and a slice of cured ham (jamón serrano or ibérico).

Children will have cereal or buiscuits (galletas) with milk (leche), hopefully fruit (fruta) and off they go to school.

At what time this happens is not important here, because it depends on each family’s timetable.

At the weekends it is common to have churros con chocolate for breakfast. However, this is a food item that can be consumed at midafternoon, too. It’s very versatile, very good and not healthy at all. Really worth trying it.

Breakfast 2 or midmorning snack

As you can see, the first breakfast is small and it requires an energy boost midmorning.

For school children, this is the typical sandwich (bocadillo or bocata) and piece of fruit that I used to give my kids when they were little. Some Spanish kids bring chocolate, crisps or other treats to get them through the pain of being at school. Some schools remind parents to give healthy snacks to their children, some other schools give kids a sandwich that is prepared on the premises.

Adults have -or not- something at a bar. It is not uncommon for office workers and civil servants to go to a bar at 10-11 in the morning and have a pincho de tortilla with café con leche (espresso coffee with milk). Or a bocadillo de lomo, chorizo, queso, vegetal, etc.

And what is a pincho de tortilla? Well, it’s the typical Spanish omelette on bread or in a sandwich. It’s de-li-cious, especially if the egg is still a bit runny.

I teach at a local cafè once a week exactly from 10-12, and it’s just the time when all the office workers of the area arrive and have their bocata, café, chat with their colleagues and then go back to work.

Obviously you can have churros here as well, or whatever you fancy.


Welcome to the main meal of the day and it takes place from 2 pm. It goes for about one and a half to two hours.

This is a long affair and, apart from the normal lunch break, it’s used by business people to do networking, close business deals and relax a bit from the office building.

Normally, people go to a restaurant and have a menú del día, one of the best Spanish inventions ever. Every restaurant and bar offers it and it consists on a set menu of three courses, plus a drink, coffee and/or dessert for a very affordable price per person.

You basically get a choice of 3-4 entrantes or primero (starters, pick one), then a choice of 3-4 platos principales or segundo (main courses, pick one), and 2-3 postres (desserts, pick one). Then you have your drink, which can be -and is normally included- a beer (cerveza) or wine (vino), plus coffee or tea at the end. And yes, drinking beer or having a glass of wine with lunch is perfectly accepted here.

Food is usually fresh and of very good quality and the dishes are typical Spanish, except if you go to a sushi place, or Chinese, or … you get the point.

I´m just going to name a few entrantes, platos principales and postres, because if I go with the full list, I would never finish writing this post.

Entrantes or primeros:

  1. Ensalada mixta (mixed salad)
  2. Gazpacho or Salmorejo (cold tomatoe soup, typical of Andalucía)
  3. Lentejas (lentils), garbanzos (chickpeas) or other hearty casserole dish (a small portion, don’t worry)
  4. Paella (rice dish with seafood)

Platos principales or segundos:

  1. Pescado (fish)/ pollo (chicken)/carne (meat) a la plancha (grilled) con patatas fritas (fries/chips) or some kind of vegetable (verduras)
  2. Paella, if it wasn’t offered as a starter
  3. Huevos con arroz (eggs with rice)


  1. Flan (I can’t describe it, but it’s the best dessert ever)
  2. Arroz con leche (rice pudding)
  3. Natillas (like creme-caramel)
  4. Fruta or macedonia (fruit salad)
  5. Tarta de la casa (home-made cake)

Merienda or mid-afternoon snack

This is another institution in Spain: la merienda. Which is nothing else than a mid to late-afternoon snack. And it consists on whatever you want to feed yourself or your kids when it’s just that time when it’s too early to have dinner but lunch was a few hours away. Say, between 5-6 pm.

What is typical is to give kids a yogurt and a piece of fruit. However, in my family, reality looks much different, with cookies and a big bocatas being the “snacks” of choice.

Obviously this varies enormously from family to family and I know many British families who just prefer to have an early dinner, instead of merienda and then dinner.

(I tried that when my kids were little and it worked until they grew up, and I started working.)

Again, what is important here is that you’re going to hear this word too many times.


Spanish families have dinner very late. What is a normal bed-time in other countries, it’s dinner time here. There is a variety of cultural and organisational reasons behind it, but truth is that having dinner at 9-10 pm is perfectly normal here. Even restaurants start taking bookings for dinner from 8-8.30 pm, and not earlier.

And what is dinner, Jimena?

Well, whatever you like, like everywhere else. Because lunch is the main meal in Spain, dinner is a lighter affair. Maybe a salad, a soup or a light dish. Again, this varies across families.

A student of mine told me just yesterday that they still have their main meal at night. We also started off trying to be very Irish and having the main meal at night, but we soon realised that it wasn’t sustainable with the kids and husband having a big lunch at school and work, respectively. So now we only have something light at night, or lunch leftovers.


I hope you found all this information useful. If you find any mistake or have any question, you can suscribe to the newsletter and send me an email through it.

In the next post I will talk about traditional, regional Spanish dishes, so don’t read it when you’re hungry.

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