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Oct 19, 2011 03:16 PM

Eating Habits in Spain/Portugal

We are going to Portugal and Spain next year. We know eating times and patterns are different from what we do here in the States. When and what type of meal is eaten when? Are there differences between Spain and Portugal? Any ideas on how to "get in shape" for the transition from America to Spain/Portugal?

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  1. In Portugal, the following meals are usual:
    * Pequeno almoco (breakfast) whenever you wake up. Typically bread with jam, cheese, and milk, coffee, etc.
    * Almoco (lunch) at around 1PM. Typically a complete meal. There are many restaurants that offer cheap meals for lunch, especially if you order the "prato do dia", or the "dish of the day", instead of ordering off the menu.
    * Lanche (not to be confused with lunch; there's no real translation in English - maybe "tea time") at around 5PM. Typically bread, or pastries, and tea, or galao (coffee with milk), or any other light snack.
    * Jantar (dinner) at 8PM. Again, a complete meal.

    Not entirely sure about Spain. I think dinner is often later in Spain than in Portugal, Also, in many parts of Spain they'll have the siesta (which is not common in Portugal).

    Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions about Portugal.

    4 Replies
    1. re: ethnicchower

      Thanks so much for this information, which is very helpful. We start in Lisbon, drive to Spain via Evora and onto Cordoba and then back again, more southerly via Beja, to Lisbon. It sounds like adjusting to Portugal will help us adjust to Spain. We love to eat, so this style of eating, with four meals, will fit right in.

      1. re: antonia2

        The Alentejo region, where you'll be travelling, it my favorite part of Portugal, as a foodie.

        Make sure you eat:
        * Carne de porco a Alentejana (pork with clams). I've tried to reproduce this dish many times in the US, and it doesn't compare. The quality of the pork in Alentejo is different from what we get here, and there it just works. So enjoy it while you're there.
        * Migas (made with bread soaked in flavored broth and pork). It sounds and looks weird, but it tastes better than it seems. I had one particularly good one made with tomato instead of pork.

        I also love the egg based desserts there, such as:
        * Encharcada
        * Serica
        * Pao de Rala

        You'll find these on the menus of many restaurants.

        1. re: ethnicchower

          Thank you so much for this information about the food of the Alentejo region. And, of course, we are looking for restaurants in the region that serve local food. Any recommendations for the area around Evora and Beja?

          1. re: antonia2

            I don't know Beja well, but in Evora we like to go to Fialho. The quality of the food in Evora is very consistent - pretty much any restaurant you go to will be similar and very good. Some people will say that Fialho is overpriced and not that much better than all the others, but we have had some superb meals there, so we keep going back. So it depends on your budget. The only restaurants I would avoid are the ones near the central plaza - pretty much, any restaurant with spaghetti bolognese on the menu (nothing against spaghetti bolognese - in fact, it's probably my favorite comfort food of all times - but those restaurants tend to cater to tourists and offer worse and less traditional food for more money).

            I forgot to mention "cataplana" on my previous post. Technically, cataplana is a dish from the Algarve, but you'll find it in Alentejo too. It's a seafood dish served in a copper pot like this one: It's yummy!

    2. I guess Spain is rather similar to Portugal as far meal times go.

      Desayuno (breakfast) is usually a pastry or a sandwich with coffee of chocolate.

      Comida (lunch) is eaten between 1pm and 4pm. It's normally a three course meal and people like to take their time when they can.

      Merienda (afternoon snack) is more for kids than adults. It's noramlly eaten between 5pm and 7 pm. It's more or less the same fare as breakfast.

      Aperitivo (pre-dinner snack) can be had before dinner or even lunch. It usually involves beer, wine or vermouth along with tapas or other small food items.

      Cena (dinner) is a full meal eaten between 9pm and midnight.

      People like to take their time and stay at the table for conversation (hacer la sobremesa) after a meal. Meal time for the Spanish, as with most other mediterranean cultures, is social time.

      8 Replies
      1. re: SnackHappy

        "People like to take their time and stay at the table for conversation (hacer la sobremesa) after a meal. Meal time for the Spanish, as with most other mediterranean cultures, is social time."

        This is a more important point than one thinks. The concept of good service takes into account some conversation time within the meal time. Sometimes the wait between two courses may strike non-Spanish people as long, but a good service is supposed to give you some yakkety-yak time with your dining companions. One is not supposed to stuff oneself in silence and hurry through. :-)

        Another point is that in general the meals are bigger than in America, but there is less between-meal snacking. Some of my American and Asian friends - from two huge snacking cultures - really have trouble adjusting to this habit. Some of them complain that the dishes are too big and some restaurants don't let them share. Instead of trying to change the culture of the visited country, I think it may be more "efficient" to change our ways when we travel. Which is why a sensitive traveller like the OP has the mindset to ask ''Any ideas on how to "get in shape" for the transition from America to Spain/Portugal?" Right? :-)

        1. re: SnackHappy

          "I guess Spain is rather similar to Portugal as far meal times go" It is actually very different!

          You would be very pushed in Portugal to find lunch after 2pm or dinner after 9:30pm, which is the earlier times you can eat in Spain.

          So even counting with the time difference (Spain is 1hr ahead of Portugal) Spanish people eat much later than Portuguese, especially in the South.

            1. re: ethnicchower

              To my defence, I was talking more about the the sequence of meals and what foods are eaten, rather than the precise time at which they are eaten. In that sense, although the Portuguese do eat lunch and dinner earlier than a most Spaniards, I still believe they are "rather similar".

              1. re: SnackHappy

                Yes, agree with both.

                It's true that by 2PM or 9:30PM restaurant start looking empty in Portugal, which doesn't seem to be the case in Spain.

                But it's also true that there are many similarities between meal sequence and content. I thought it was interesting that Spaniards also have the concept of the afternoon snack, for example, where breakfast-type food is eaten. Also, the fact that both countries eat full meals for lunch (I don't think that eating a quick salad or sandwich is as common there as it is in the US).

          1. re: SnackHappy

            Thanks so much for this information about Spain, which does seem different from Portugal. Even more opportunities to eat and have good conversation! When is the Aperitivo with tapas usually eaten? About 7? We are huge tapas fans and want to make sure we leave enough time to indulge.

            1. re: antonia2

              Aperitivo is a few hours before dinner and hours are flexible depending on what time you plan to have dinner. Bars are usually open all day and people will sometimes have tapas instead of lunch or dinner. In Catalonia there is a dying tradition of pre-lunch aperitivo. It's now mostly done on Sundays. "Fer el vermut" typically means to eat olives and drink sweet vermouth before the midday meal, but other food and drinks are also served. I don't know that much about aperitivo in the south, other than the usual stuff about tapas in Andalusia.

              1. re: antonia2

                Note there are no tapas in Portugal... The closest thing is called "petiscos", small dishes of iscas (liver), caracois (snails), ameijoas (clams) and so on. Eaten at any time between friends, sitting in a café drinking beer. Often watching a football match! Portuguese take their food too seriously to eat standing at the bar!

            2. Not sure what you mean by "get in shape" for the transition, but learning some Portuguese and Spanish would be very useful (if you don't already speak them). At least basic conversation and restaurant/market/food vocabulary.

              3 Replies
              1. re: DeppityDawg

                We are in the process of learning Portuguese now and already speak French and Spanish (and, of course, English). What I meant by "get in shape", was a process of acclimating our bodies to the different eating times. Although we normally eat dinner late by American midwest standards (about 7pm), that is quite different from eating a meal at 10pm or even 8pm. I think that being able to acclimate to the different eating habits in the countries we have visited has made a big difference in our enjoyment of our travels. And sometimes, that takes a bit of practice!

                1. re: antonia2

                  Hmm, that's an interesting idea… I think the jet lag should help you automatically at first, since it'll feel earlier for you all the time and you'll be able to eat and stay up later. But I've never been able to figure out how Spaniards manage to eat so much, so late, and then go to bed and sleep normally and get up at a reasonable hour. (At least I assume they go to bed, at some point.)

                  I'm pretty sure that part of the answer is that they don't actually eat so much, so late all the time, for example at home, during the week. But further research is required…

                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                    As you say, Spanish people won't eat that much and that late when they are at home and living their normal, daily lives - they will eat a late lunch (2pm ish) and have a siesta (the lenth of this depends on where they live and what their job is). They may then have something after work at a bar - perhaps a couple of tapas - or just go straight home and have a snack between 9pm and 10pm - some charcuterie or a salad maybe.

                    There are variations in time for different people - and the habits of younger people are different to those of their grandparents. More and more, people living and working in big cities in Southern France and Spain are only having an hour off for lunch, when they grab a snack, as we do in Britain. They will probably eat a bit earlier in the evening because of this.

                    If they are on holiday or having a meal out, it is all a bit different - as it is for most of
                    us. At home in England, we will normally eat at about 7-7.30 on a school night (but many will eat earlier, between 6-6.30), but if people are going out or having a special meal in, it is more likely to be 8.00 or later.