How to eat like a local – The when and what of Spanish mealtimes

spanish mealtimes

One of the neatest parts of life abroad is seeing all the different ways people do life. Also cool is how while you’re bouncing from one place to the next, you’ll inevitably pick up a few of these habits. I quickly adopted a few in Bogotá and I see it happening again here in Madrid.

Except, Madrid will take over your entire life. I tried to resist and still get up at 5:30 am to workout and take care of my errands bright and early. No chance. Shops remain shuttered until late morning because—another newsflash—no one goes to bed before midnight. Madrid lives according to its own schedule and in order to save yourself some headaches, it’s best to follow the locals.

The quickest way to get the hang of life in Madrid is to zero in on their meal schedule. Once you adapt to this the rest of your life will seamlessly follow. Because while it’s true that the people are laid back, there is no getting around the specific routine of Spanish mealtimes.

Sure, if you really want dinner at 7:00 pm you can eat rubbery chicken wings at the Hard Rock Cafe with the fanny-pack wearing tourists. But if not (and let’s hope not), keep reading for what and when to eat when you’re in Madrid.




Some people skip desayuno or breakfast. Everyone else grabs a café con leche and toasted baguette with either jam or olive oil and pureed tomato. It might seem sad compared to the eggs, bacon, and toast you may be used to in the U.S. but don’t worry, this is just a little something to get you started first thing in the morning (i.e. before 9:00 am).


Spanish mealtimes



In other Spanish-speaking countries, almuerzo means lunch. In Spain, however, it’s your mid-morning second breakfast. Yep, like a Lord of the Rings hobbit’s second breakfast. Lunch is a late affair so it’s common to have a little something to tide you over. You may wonder who is going to stop their day for an extra break but come 11:30 you’ll see the zillions of wood-paneled cafes fill with people standing at the bar having a quick coffee and bite to eat. Common almuerzo dishes are a small sandwich or slice of Spanish tortilla—egg and potato omelet—with a piece of baguette.




La comida literally means “the meal” and is normally between 1:30 and 3:30 pm. True to its name, it’s the biggest meal of the day and almost a sacred time for Spaniards. Parents and kids go home to eat together or at the least, people leave the office to enjoy their meal and take a walk. Most restaurants offer a menú del día, consisting of an appetizer, main dish, and dessert or coffee. I’ve never seen a menu that doesn’t also include a glass of wine or beer, which is perfectly acceptable to drink even if you’re going back to the office.




Dinner, like lunch, is later than you might expect. Again, don’t worry because Spain has you covered with another mini-meal to keep you going. La merienda is an afternoon snack eaten before dinner, usually between 5:00 and 7:00 pm. Both sweet and savory options are popular, whether it’s a pastry or cake and coffee or a caña (small beer) and a tapa like ham and some cheese.


Spanish mealtimes



When it comes to dinner or cena, it depends on the day of the week and whether you’re eating out or at home. Families who eat together at home may have their meal as early as 8:00 pm. If you’re going out on a weeknight the norm is around 9:00. On a weekend though, restaurants won’t fill up until 10:30 at the earliest.

After all those meals and snacks, dinner is generally light. In bars and restaurants, it’s common to share a couple of raciones, or portions, of things like octopus, boiled shrimp, and of course the ubiquitous jamón and queso. At home it’s—yep—a little ham/cheese/bread or maybe fruit and yogurt.


Spanish mealtimes


And even though you’re probably bursting, don’t forget about the late-night bonus of churros and hot chocolate! You’ll see this typical pairing peddled all over Madrid and it’s loved by locals and tourists alike. The only difference? Tourists pop in cafes during the day. Many Madrileños, however, eat churros and chocolate as a late night (or early morning!) snack after a night of drinking.


Did it take you long to adjust to the mealtimes in Spain? Which meal is your fave? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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