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?

The Foreigner at the Table

I’ve eaten many a meal with Mario’s family. His friends, too. But it wasn’t until recently that his cousin pointed out to me that, well, I eat funny. No, no, my chewing habits are just fine, thanks. But what’s up with your hand?

Think long and hard about what you do with your hands while you eat. Inspired by this post about Spaniards’ eating habits, I came up with my own list of the way Spaniards find us guiris weird at the dinner table:


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Los Simpson in Spain

My parents forbade me from watching The Simpsons when I was younger. It was on our taboo list, along with anything on MTV. (Honestly, anything on MTV should still be on everyone’s taboo lists, due to its atrocious content, and yes, I’m looking at you, Jersey Shore.) When I got older, The Simpsons was never on my radar, for better or for worse. I preferred Nick at Nite reruns of I Love Lucy, Happy Days, and Wonder Years. I don’t doubt that I’m better for it. It was much more helpful to spend my nights with Elizabeth Montgomery and Lucille Ball than any other so-called celebrity. Upon my arrival in Spain in 2008, then, I was unaware of the show’s fame. I’d no idea just how ubiquitous American music, television, and film were. I know, how utterly naïve of me. But as I soon found out, American culture is everywhere, in the places you’d least expect. It’s not limited to pop culture or celebrities. Indeed, even words like parking are used in Spanish to indicate a parking lot. (More hilariously, footing means jogging.) I was amazed, and somewhat disappointed, when I first came upon McDonalds, Burger King, and even KFC in Europe. If we had to export something, why was it mass-produced chicken “meat” and gummy instant mashed potatoes?

The Simpsons, in contrast, are somewhat respectable. Seriously.  The show’s creator, Matt Groening, has a sharp eye for satire and does a respectable job at lampooning American culture’s more dubious elements, including hyper-fundamentalism and a lack of focus on education. The series has been running for 20-plus years now, having debuted on December 17, 1989. That sort of run is no mere coincidence. Yet whenever I explain to my friends and family that, indeed, the Simpsons are the most popular American family in Spain, they stare at me slack-jawed. “But why?” they inquire, their confusion palpable. It’s just that no one I know watches the show as often as Spaniards. I don’t even know when it’s on in the states. I mean, of course there are people who watch it in the U.S. It wouldn’t have survived 20 years if that weren’t the case. But there is something about the program that has become deeply ingrained in the Spanish psyche. As with all cultural aspects, it helps to get a Spanish boyfriend (and/or girlfriend, whichever way you swing). Mario is my window into all aspects of Spanish-osity and –isms, and I thank him for it, even if sometimes he probably gets annoyed with my intermittent ranting and raving when I fail to grasp the finer aspects of the culture. I was somewhat surprised to find that his family often (but by no means always) eats dinner with the television on, something I thought the proper Spanish would never do, as food is not only eaten, but relished here. At his house, and in most Spanish households, lunch is eaten between 2:30-3:00 and doesn’t end until 3:30-4:00.During that time period, two vitally important T.V. programs are aired: The Simpsons and the news. While Americans may find it odd that the news is on at three o’clock, rest assured that it’s not. The three o’clock hour is one upon which the news stations can count. That’s when the siesta is, after all, and that’s when their viewers will be most numerous. They can’t deny their appetites and they also won’t turn off their televisions. The dollar signs begin to appear in your eyes. Thus, The Simpsons’ producers have either had inordinate luck or are just geniuses because they have assured themselves the 2:30 spot, the time just before the lunch hour when the children are sitting in the living room, their little tummies growling hungrily as they wait for mamá to bring in el primer plato, or “the first course.” Naturally, what’s on that’s appealing to them? The Simpsons, who, at the end of the day, aren’t really that offensive and can be counted upon for easy laughs. Homer is always eating and Bart is usually slacking off, something a lot of little Spaniards, at least in my experience, will have no trouble relating to.


I asked Mario for his opinion, and he said (translated from el español): “I think it’s because the humor isn’t harsh, it’s funny at times, and people love Homer. I like it because it’s a cartoon and because it shows the life of a normal American family as well as showing that they are normal, with faults as well as virtues. Homer is very impulsive and stupid at times, but he has a good heart.” Now you’re famous too, Mario. Famous on the Internets. I’ve come to my conclusion, then. If someday I decide to produce my own television show (a very unlikely possibility, but bear with me), I will try my damnedest to have it on at 2:30 PM or 9 PM, the hours right before the meals. In reality, the 2:30 hour is preferable, but I’ll take what I can get.  It wouldn’t hurt for it to be animated. Hey, it worked for Matt Groening, why not for me?