My first few glances at Madrid’s restaurant menus gave me major anxiety. Yes, part of it was that I had a whole new list of food words to learn. But after that, I started worrying how I was going to live here for the next few years and not have to buy new jeans every six months.
Because Spanish food is the delicious cliche you think it is: all varieties of ham, creamy cheese, peppery wine, and olives stuffed with everything you can imagine. There’s really no way to avoid these foods and besides, I didn’t want to! Unfortunately, unless I was going to develop insane self-control (not likely), I was going to have to develop some new eating habits.
Thank goodness the Spaniards are already pros at this and all I had to do was follow their example. Keep reading for seven habits I copied from the locals so I could have my ham and eat it too.
They don’t rush their meals
One thing you’ll never see a Spaniard do is scarf a piece of toast as they hurry to the metro. Or eat a granola bar in the car. Or have lunch at their desk. In fact, doing any of these is likely to get you a stern look of disapproval. Like most places in Europe, eating is a big deal. It’s done at a table and without distractions. This is good for your waistline since you’ll savor your food (believe me, manchego cheese deserves your full attention) and be able to pay attention to your body’s signals, both of which help you stop when you’ve had enough.
They sip slowly
Ok sure, at first it’s strange to see people standing at a bar with a caña at 11 in the morning or for people on their lunch break to order a bottle of wine. But Spaniards like their wine/beer/vermouth/sherry/cava..I’ll go ahead and stop here, you get the point. While it’s true that booze will pack on the pounds, the Spanish manage to drink a lot without drinking a lot. That’s because while it’s a given you’ll drink with a meal, most people will nurse that one glass of wine over the two-hour lunch. Generally speaking, the only people you’ll see knocking back bottles are the foreigners.
They eat smaller meals throughout the day
Some experts advocate for multiple meals throughout the day, which was probably stolen directly from the Spanish. The average Spaniard eats five times a day—four smallish meals and a big lunch in the middle. Breakfast is at home and usually a coffee with milk and toast with tomato. Lunch is a multiple course affair around 2:00 pm and there’s a light dinner eaten no earlier than 8:30 pm. Meal times are pretty set, so to get you through it’s common to pause for a snack between breakfast/lunch and lunch/dinner. All these little meals mean you’re never starving or stuffed and miserable.
They stick to a Mediterranean diet
First of all, let’s acknowledge that bread and churros and croquettes, though on every Spanish menu, are not health foods. Nor do they fall into the “whole foods” category. However, take look at all the other things on the average Spaniard’s plate and you’ll find the basics of a Mediterranean diet. Things like olives and olive oil, whatever fruits and vegetables are in season, and lots of fresh fish. Wine, cheese, and ham are eaten regularly, but in moderation (see the note about tapas). There’s a reason the Mediterranean diet was all the rage a few years ago—it’s healthy and sustainable.
They eat the real deal
Low-fat is not a thing in Spain. It probably tried to gain a foothold somewhere in the food economy but people just laughed it off. Spaniards would rather have a little bit of incredible cheese, white marbled chorizo, or crispy calamari than to skimp or go without. Studies say that though eating full-fat foods sounds counterintuitive, fat makes you feel satiated and fuller flavors satisfy cravings.
They walk everywhere
Spaniards walk. A lot. Part of this is because gas is expensive and city centers are full of cramped old streets and nightmarish parking. Most urban families either share a car or don’t have one at all. But walking is also a cultural pastime. Both midday and evenings you’ll see the streets full of Spaniards on a paseo, which is basically a leisurely stroll. The paseo requires no specific destination or time frame, just an hour or so to get out and have some fresh air. Either way, walking is great exercise and the average Spainaird racks up the steps every day.
They eat tapas
Tapas are small plates and meant to be shared. For the late afternoon and nighttime meals, it’s common to see people clustered around shared portions of olives, boiled shrimp, or grilled peppers. Even larger dishes—think grilled meat or paella—are served and eaten family style. Right away you have built in portion control! This is also good because sharing dishes gives you fewer opportunities to overeat. That said, if someone ordering for the table or strange fingers approaching your plate gives you heart palpitations, I suggest you get over that before making Spanish friends.
Living in Spain has definitely changed my dining habits for the better. Except with wine—I’ll always be a two glass gal. That said, I would love to hear what you think about eating abroad. Have you picked up new habits or philosophies about eating? Drop me a line in the comments below!