La Comida—Spain’s Most Important Meal

Spanish food, American food. Spanish meals, American meals. Spanish life, American life. How are they similar? How are they different?

Okay, I’m going to stop sounding like a blue-book exam right about now.

In Spain, you may hear people say the following:

  • Salimos después de comer.
  • ¿Cuándo vais a comer?
  • Paramos para comer.
  • Te dieron de comer, ¿no?

I’ve figured it out—the Spanish day isn’t structured around the clock (not really). It’s all about la comida, lunch. (In high school we learned the word almuerzo, which isn’t the same thing in Spain. Almuerzo tends to be a mid-morning snack, whereas la comida is lunch around 2 or 3 p.m.) This led me to tell Mario that people are fixated on eating lunch! It plays such a central role.

In the states, we have morning until 11:59 a.m., afternoon after 12 p.m., evening after about 6 p.m., and night after about 9 p.m.

In Spain, morning is until you eat. After that it’s la tarde (literally “the afternoon”) until you have dinner. After dinner, it’s nighttime. For me, it’s still weird to hear 7 p.m. being referred to as 7 in the afternoon, but I’m getting used to it.

Spanish food

Photo from Hayley Comments

Eating must be pretty important for Spaniards! Of course, you know it is. Most Spaniards I know would not want to spend their lunch hour in front of the computer with a sandwich in their hand. Indeed, this is the antithesis of the traditional Spanish lunch.


Dad and I eating in San Sebastián, Spain

What is the (traditional) Spanish lunch about, then? It’s about …

taking a real break. Don’t give me any 30-minute lunches, I’m talking at least an hour and maybe two. Of course, if you have a job, it’s shorter. Mario has a full two hours to eat, but since we live in Madrid, going home for lunch would just be silly. In small towns it is much easier to do this. Nonetheless, most Spaniards take a break, even if it is just to sit down with work colleagues in the office.

… first plate, second plate, fruit, dessert, coffee. At least in la casa de mis suegros, this is how it goes, almost always. You can shake things up a bit by having small appetizers for the first course or making the fruit the dessert. My father-in-law has fruit, dessert, and then sometimes a small cookie with coffee. Sweet tooth? Nah.

… the three o’clock news. Unless it’s a special meal, the news tends to be on while we’re eating. This doesn’t mean we always pay attention to it. Before the news comes on, we watch The Simpsons. Because of the timing, a lot of Spaniards end up watching the Simpsons, a fact I attribute to its immense success here in Spain.

la sobremesa. A word with no real English equivalent, sobremesa is the chat after the meal, as people linger over coffee, sweets, and liqueurs. As people are generally content with their bellies full and the wine flowing through their veins, there can be some really intriguing and enlightening conversations that occur.

la siesta. This is not as true as it once was, but many do pause to take a short nap, whether it be on the couch or in a bed! I find that the more I eat, the more I want a siesta! Of course, when we’re having dinner at my in-laws’ house, we generally don’t eat lightly.

La comida, besides meaning lunch, literally means “food,” emphasizing the meal’s importance for many Spaniards. As I live here longer and longer, I am beginning to love the concept and embrace the (outdated?) concept of sitting down with loved ones and pressing pause for a moment.

What do you love about the Spanish idea of la comida?

13 thoughts on “La Comida—Spain’s Most Important Meal

  1. I must say (risking to sound very Hermione Grnager here, sorry) that “almuerzo” is the correct word for lunch, the one you have at about 2 or 3 pm. We call it “comida” or “comer” because it really is the most important meal of the day, but it’s totally correct to say almuerzo. I’ve never heard it used to call a mid-morning meal (that’ a snack or, as we call it down here, second breakfast, or the bocadillo for the recreo -if you’re still at school, hehe).

    1. I haven’t heard it! Do you think it could be more common in Andalucia? Just curious, because we learned it, but I think I’d sound very South American if I asked what was for almuerzo.

      1. Hi! I’m from Murcia and yes, we use almuerzo for that mid-morning meal (sandwich, some coffee with tortilla, fruit or some snack). It’s common to hear mothers saying: “te he preparado un bocadillo de atún para el almuerzo” to their kids. It is about 11am-12pm.

        For example, my father works in the construction and because they start to work about 7,30-8am or so it is reaaaally common to have a very big “almuerzo” (like an early meal, it can be shocking with a lot of food. There are some bars specialized in the almuerzo time and it can be their more crowded time in the day).

        Maybe is something more common in the south… I have no idea.

        And yes, “la comida” is the most important meal/event of the day. For me, a day without a good comida time is like there is something missing at the end of the day.

      2. It actually comes in my ELE textbooks and I even checked the RAE (just in case) and it says so. I guess preferences also depend on the region. Here people say “la comida” commonly too.

      3. I’m currently living in Granada, and we ALWAYS use almuerzo for lunch. I have never once heard it used to refer to as a mid-morning snack. The snack is generally treated as a second breakfast, and referred to as such. So it sounds right to me that it is indeed different in Andalucia!

      4. I’m currently living in Granada, and we only use “almuerzo” for lunch. The mid-morning snack is generally treated as a second breakfast, and is called such. So I think you might be right that it is more common in Andalucia!

    2. Lunch is “la comida” here in Bilbao. Almuerzo, when the word is used, is for the mid-morning snack, never for lunch. Have heard it all over the north, especially in Northern Castilla, Campoo, Burgos and also in books or newspaper articles. Here people tend to use the Basque equivalent, even when they are not Basque speakers, hamaiketako = elevenses (literally), so you can see the Middle Earth influence.
      But it is true that most people who have an early start – factories, students, etc. need those elevenses to shore them up until lunch, e.g. my son who has classes from 8:00 to 2-3, which means his breakfast was at 7:00 in the morning.

  2. My first few months I remember having a conversation with my intercambio how the word “comida” had three meanings in Spain and I didn’t understand how to differentiate between the three because they were all related to food!
    1) comida= food
    2) comida= lunch
    3) comida= meal

    The conversation went around in circles because my intercambio really didn’t understand how I was so confused about having one word mean 3 things but ALL related to food.

  3. The part about it being “morning until you eat” is interesting to say the least…imagine my confusion when teachers/students/others say “Buenas Dias” and it’s like anywhere from 2-5 PM. I find it so weird but now I know why this is said at that time thanks to your post.

  4. While they eat it earlier in France, I too enjoy the fact that they take time to enjoy their lunch and serve many courses! Plus, the more I eat at lunch the less likely I am to snack (although that American habit hasn’t completed disappeared yet…).

  5. I agree with every single word you’ve written. Truthfully, this idea of “la comida” and the scheduling that surrounds it is one of the things that comforts me most about living in Spain. In the U.S. we don’t have these same fixed ideas and when someone invites me for dinner, I never know exactly what’s going to happen. Here, I go eat with someone and I know that each of these steps will be followed and it makes life … easy.

    Oh and also, I’ve had many students ask me about how to say sobremesa in English, and I struggle with that because it’s such a Spanish concept. Great post!

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