A Guide to Eating in Spain for Families

Don’t let your family’s regular routine ruin a chance to enjoy Spanish food and customs!

Eating in Spain can take some getting used to, even for adults.  On our first trip to Spain, back in 2001, we never did adjust to the Spanish rhythm of eating: a heavy lunch around two or three in the afternoon and a lighter dinner anytime between about eight and eleven at night.  We knew about this cultural difference, but we were too busy trying to fit in every tourist sight possible. We’d select from a few places that were open at our “normal” eating times, and go there. As you can imagine, these restaurants were not busy and did not focus on high quality, local food.   By not modifying our schedules to match the Spanish style, we missed out on many authentic experiences that first trip. On subsequent trips, we learned the benefits of slowing down our travel and calibrating our schedule to reflect the locals around us.

We weren’t sure how adopting the Spanish schedule of eating would work when we first traveled to Spain with our son.  At home, his normal bedtime is eight; how could we hold him off for dinner after his usual bedtime? It turns out that it’s totally doable; remember, Spanish children do this schedule all the time!  When traveling in Spain, a typical day starts later than normal, usually about 8 or 9. Breakfast can be anything from fresh croissants and yogurt to scrambled eggs to cereal. We’ll go about our plans for the day, making sure we have a heavy late morning “snack”, or almuerzo, planned.  Almuerzo in some Spanish-speaking countries actually means lunch, but it Spain it is a late morning meal that might consist of a bocadillo (baguette sandwich) or a generous hunk of tortilla (Spanish potato omelette) along with a piece of fruit.  This snack-meal fortifies adults and children alike for continuing the day’s activities: exploring a local park, climbing steps in a cathedral, or playing on the beach.  

Eventually, around two or three o’clock, it’s time for lunch.  To communicate its importance, in Spain lunch is known simply as la comida, or the meal.  Lunch is a long affair, usually lasting about two hours or more.  Many restaurants offer a menú del día at lunch, which is often a great deal and a bit of a time-saver if you want it to be.  You can get two or three courses and a drink for as low as ten euro! Families with multiple children can consider splitting up one menú among two or three children depending on age.  Often, the food from the menú del día also comes out a bit more quickly, meaning families who don’t want as leisurely of a lunch can trim it to about an hour and a half.  Family friendly options on a menú might include ensalada mixta (mixed salad, often with chunks of tuna), solomillo de pollo/cerdo (chicken or pork tenderloin), paella, and albondigas (meatballs).  You can always order from the main menu (known as la carta in Spanish) as well.  Here you will find things such as grilled meats and fish, pasta, and even burgers (which are often made of a mix of pork and beef, look for 100% vacuna if you want an all beef burger).  After a heavy meal and a long morning, it’s a good time for a rest back at the hotel or apartment, especially since most places will be closed until about five in the afternoon anyways.

When early evening rolls around, consider hitting a local park or going for a stroll to get everyone moving again.  Eventually, you might make your way to a plaza and enjoy a glass of wine or beer (order a caña to sound like a local) and some jamón iberico (the most incredible Spanish cured ham made from black-footed pigs that feed on acorns), a tabla de quesos (cheese plate), or just some aceitunas (olives) while the kids run around making friends with local children.  If you are in an area with pedestrian-only streets, take the opportunity to enjoy some tapas or pintxos for a casual dinner in the fresh air.  The kids can run around the street, popping back for bites of food, while you enjoy a typical Spanish experience.  Alternatively, many places have tables and accept reservations if you’d prefer to sit and have a server.

Tapas, or pintxos as they are known in the Basque region, vary across Spain.  In some places, like Madrid, a tapa is included with a drink at a bar.  In others, like Sevilla and Valencia, tapas are ordered from a menu like other foods.  You can also often order a larger sized portion, or ración, of many menu items.  There are even media raciones (half-portions).  In San Sebastián, which is a major gastronomic destination, you have the option of selecting pintxos directly off the bar or ordering them from the bartender.  The types of tapas also differ in each region. However, some that are readily available in most places include gambas al ajillo (shrimp cooked in a spicy olive oil), tortilla española (potato omelette, also available with other fillings), patatas bravas (fried cubed potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce and alioli), croquetas (fried ball with various fillings), pulpo a la gallega (boiled octopus served with olive oil and paprika), and carrillera (slow-cooked, tender beef or pork cheek).     

Ordering at a bar in Spain can be quite intimidating, especially at peak hours in places worth going to for their food. Many bars have menus (often available in English) that you can grab or chalkboards posted throughout to study before approaching the bar.  It can take a while to place and receive your order, so if you are traveling with two or more adults, leave one outside to watch the kids play while the other ventures inside. After pushing your way through the crowds and getting the attention of the bartender, communicate what you want as clearly as possible.  Don’t take it personally if the bartender is a bit gruff, it’s very typical! Grab the drinks, bread and cutlery as they are served and pop back in occasionally to check on the food status. These days, some bars even have buzzers to tell you when the food is ready! Many bars have tables outside that you can stand at, but depending on the age of your child, it may be easier to just sit on the ground against a wall to eat.  Eating in a different setting than usual just enhances the experience. The kids will certainly remember a picnic on the streets!
If you have room for dessert, try the torrija (a caramelized piece of bread soaked in milk, often served with ice cream) or a traditional flan de huevo (egg custard) or maybe just an ice cream from one of the heladerias that seem to tempt you everywhere you go as you head back to your room to make it to bed sometime just before midnight.  

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