“Mustard After Dinner”, Or Are Spain’s Mealtimes Climate-Related?

Oct 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in February 2014]

In a recent article in the New York Times, Jim Yardley discussed the proposal by the Spanish government to end the siesta tradition and switch to a meal- and worktime pattern “closer to a 9‑to-5 timetable”. Such a reform would also “move Spain out of the time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy” and into a geographically more appropriate zone that includes Portugal and Britain. In response, Slate’s L.V. Anderson wrote that, contrary to the Yardley’s assumption, the Spanish mealtime pattern may be better for “personal productivity”, particularly for those who “like to eat” or “are not a morning person”. Both Yardley and Anderson seem to assume that the late-meal pattern is unique to “Spain, Land of 10 P.M. Dinners” (as the New York Times headline calls it) and is due to the country’s climate. This assertion is not entirely true, however, as people in Italy and France traditionally dine relatively late in the evening as well. Rick Steves’ guidebook to Rome tells us that: “[The Romans] eat a late, light dinner (around 20:00-21:30, or maybe earlier in winter)” (p. 360). Similarly, Mireille Guiliano writes in French Women Don’t Get Fat: “In France, a true restaurant (as opposed to a bistro, brasserie, or a place that caters to tourists) won’t even take a reservation before eight p.m., and most of the French don’t arrive till nine” (p. 260). In fact, the mealtime patterns in Britain and Scandinavia used to be similar to those in Spain, Italy, and France.

Before we proceed to compare regional mealtime patterns, a note on the terminology is in order. As we shall see below, historically meals have tended to be pushed over time to later hours in the day, but the English-language names have stuck. As a result “dinner”, which originally was a midday meal, has gradually become an evening meal, but the term still denotes the most substantial meal of the day. Historical shifts in mealtime patterns thus involve not only the hours when a meal is eaten but also how substantial the meal in question is. In the past, “substantial” usually meant that some concentrated form of protein (meat, poultry, or seafood) was included, while “lighter” meals could be entirely grain- and vegetable-based. The imprecise translations of meal terminology between languages complicate matters even further. In order to compare like with like, the remainder of this post uses “dinner” to mean the most substantial meal of the day, which includes some hot food and usually some form of protein, regardless of the hour when it is eaten. Lighter meals before dinner (but after breakfast, which is the first meal of the day, wherever you go) include “lunch”, “luncheon”, and “tea”, while post-dinner meals include “nuntion” (or nuncheon, more on which below) and “supper” (additional “snacks” of sweet or savory variety may be taken at other times of the day).

With that terminology in mind, let’s consider the traditional Spanish mealtime pattern, as described by Anderson. Since the most substantial meal is eaten around 2 p.m., I shall call that “dinner”. The following pattern thus emerges:

8 a.m. Breakfast

11 a.m. Savory snack

2 p.m. Dinner

6 p.m. Savory snack

10 p.m. Supper

This configuration is very similar to the traditional patterns found in France or Italy, where “lunch (between 13:00 and 15:00) is traditionally the largest meal of the day, eaten at home” (Rick Steves, Rome, p. 360). Interestingly, a somewhat similar pattern is found in Northern Europe as well. Thus, according to Patricia Crinion Bjaaland’s Living in Norway, “lunch (lunsj) is a late-morning snack, usually taken to and eaten at school or one’s workplace”. The “main and often only hot meal of the day”—what we would call “dinner”—is traditionally served, as its name middag suggests, “midday”, or “sometime between 4 and 6 o’clock in the afternoon, at the end of the working day”. The early dinner is supplemented by “a light follow-up supper (aftens) later in the evening, prudently before bedtime” (p. 185). Although trendy restaurants in Norway now serve American-style late dinner after 7 p.m., most Norwegians still follow the traditional pattern of lunsj, middag, and aftens—and university cafeterias still serve these meals. In Britain too, “dinner” was originally a meal eaten around noon or 1 p.m., regardless of one’s social standing, as discussed in detail by Sherrie McMillan. At the eastern outskirts of Europe, Russians too have traditionally eaten the biggest meal of the day (in Russian obed) around or shortly after noon.

In medieval Europe, this pattern made perfect sense: peasants and merchants alike wanted to break for a meal about six or seven hours after they started their day (which was typically with the first daylight), while the upper classes used the leisurely midday meal as an occasion for ostentatious displays of wealth and entertainment. Artificial lighting, such as oil lamps and candles, was expensive and provided weak illumination at best, so people usually went to bed at sundown or shortly thereafter, and probably slept in two separate stretches. As McMillan writes, “the last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the lights (the sun) went out”. The very wealthy who “had candles to burn and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late” did not want to go to bed on a full stomach, so their supper was a light meal as well. When breakfast, dinner, and supper were not sufficient—for example, on those days when peasants worked long hours harvesting in late summer and autumn—occasional extra meals were added, including luncheon (between breakfast and dinner) and nuntion (between dinner and supper); the latter typically consisted of ale and bread.

In eighteenth century Britain, the mealtime pattern started to change. Artificial lighting became more affordable and more common, as did evening entertainment, such as theater and opera. In Shakespeare’s time performances were typically scheduled for daytime, in sunlight, but starting in the 1700s, the theater moved indoors to enclosed, illuminated halls. Around the same time, entertainment became accessible to the ever-growing middle classes. More importantly, the Industrial Revolution brought with it longer working hours and longer commutes. As a result of these developments—which have more to do with economy and technology than climate—dinner was gradually pushed to later hours. According to McMillan, “in London, by the 1730s and 40s, the upper class nobles and gentry were dining at three or four in the afternoon, and by 1770 their dinner hours in London was four or five … By 1800 the dinner hour had been moved to six or seven”. By the Victorian era, the dinner was often eaten as late as 8 or 9 p.m., not that different from the way dinner is eaten in France or Italy today. For middle- and lower-class folks too, “the midday meal had to become something light, just whatever they could carry to work. The main meal, still usually called dinner, was pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full meal”. The late-dinner pattern first took hold in London (and subsequently in Paris), while the rural population, both in Britain and on the continent persisted in eating dinner at midday and supper in early evening. As a result, “the main dinner meal could be eaten anywhere from five to eight hours later in the city than the country, by the start of the Victorian era”.


In order to be tide over before the dinner, additional lighter meals were included in the daily schedule. First, a lunch (or luncheon, as it was then called) was introduced to Britain by 1810 as a regular meal, not an occasional one, with parallels in the French déjeuner, Russian vtoroj zavtrak (literally “second breakfast”), and Norwegian lunsj. This was “a light meal, of dainty sandwiches and cakes, held at noon or one or even later, but always between breakfast and dinner”. In the early days, lunch was a meal eaten exclusively by women of high- or middle-class; hence the expression ladies who lunch. According to McMillan, “when the Prince of Wales established a habit of lunching with ladies, he was ridiculed for his effeminate ways, as well as his large appetite. Real men didn’t do lunch, at least not until the Victorian era”. As dinner was pushed to an even later hour—by 1840s it was typically eaten as late as 8 or 9 p.m.—English ladies pioneered another light meal between lunch and dinner: afternoon tea. Served around 4 or 5 p.m., this meal consisted of light sandwiches and cakes, with copious amounts of the eponymous drink, which by then the British imported directly from Canton. (In many parts of England, “tea” is now synonymous with supper; see the map.) While the “high tea” is an English tradition, other cultures have similar meals: for example, Russians—particularly children—eat poldnik (literally, ‘half-day meal’) around 4 p.m. The Spanish tapas snack around 6 p.m. and the northern Italian aperitivo tradition around the same time are similar pre-supper meals.


In United States, the old mealtime patterns persisted longer than in Britain as well. In the early 1800s, upper-class Bostonians—unlike Londoners and Parisians—were still eating dinner at 2 p.m. and supper at 8 p.m. The mid-afternoon dinner was the time for entertaining guests and showing off the silverware, while the evening meal was a simpler and lighter affair, for family and intimate friends only. For some people, the word “dinner” still retains the meaning of a formal meal, while “supper” differs from it not only in timing but primarily (or for some speakers, only) in formality. But in America too, the patterns eventually shifted. By the mid-20th century lunch became the standard midday meal, with a more substantial dinner eaten at 6 or 7 p.m. and supper relegated to the “occasional meal” category (eaten, for example, after theater or during a late night ball). Only in some rural areas, “dinner” still refers to a midday meal (often one served on Sunday or a special occasion), while “supper” is eaten in the evening.

Thus, it may be said that it is the people of English-speaking countries who eat their dinner late, not the continental Europeans. The hour at which the evening meal is taken differs somewhat from country to country, but it depends not so much on the climate, but on the social patterns of work time, entertainment, and family activities.

I am curious to know if the European mealtime pattern with a substantial midday meal and a lighter evening meal is inherently more healthy, as the calories consumed are distributed over more numerous meals and fewer calories are consumed in the hours before bedtime. Guiliano mentions the French habit of “eating lightly at night” (p. 280) as promoting good digestion and good sleep. The Spanish/Italian/French-style late supper may also reduce late night snacking, likewise helping to prevent obesity. If this is so, I would agree with Anderson’s conclusion: “Spain shouldn’t change its routine. We should change ours”.


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