Here’s how I’m trying to do as the Spaniards do.
Last summer, my fiancé, Nick, and I went to Spain (specifically Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Pamplona). We were visiting one of my best friends there (her name is Ana), and she was able to show us some great spots to eat and drink. But more importantly, staying with her helped us to soak in the culture of Spain—including the way people typically eat, drink, and socialize.
I discovered several major differences in the way people approach food during our short time—a few of which seem not only more sensible and fun, but actually healthier. I’ve been trying to incorporate these into Nick's and my dinner routine, since we’ve returned to America. Here’s how I think we can all learn from the Spaniards to live a healthier (and way more fun) life.
Eat Less of More
America is the land of supersized portions, Big Gulps, and all-you-can-eat-buffets (#GodBlessAmerica), so eating in Spain for the first time was an experience.
At our first meal, Ana instructed us to order multiple entrees (tapas). We’re used to ordering one American-sized entree, so you can imagine our surprise and delight when we got to order four or five for the table. Some of our favorite dishes included bowls of Spanish olives, Jamon iberico (a kind of cured ham), pulpo (octopus; that dish in the photo above), bacalao (salted cod), patatas bravas (potatoes with smoked paprika and creamy aioli), and croquetas (fried, breaded deliciousness filled with ham, cheese, fish, or other delights).
Were they all healthy? Um, no. Were they delicious? Absolutely.
And that’s the beauty of eating in Spain. Because the tapas-sized portions are small and meant to be shared among several people, you can have your patatas bravas and croquetas and still maintain a balanced diet. And you don't feel deprived.
I try to eat healthy most of the time, and I have a not-so-great habit of telling myself that certain foods—like fried potatoes—are “off-limits”. But after visiting Spain, I learned that you can (and should) eat what you like—as long as you keep portion sizes in check.
Make Dinner Your Smallest Meal
Generally speaking, most Spaniards eat the majority of their calories during breakfast or lunch, and then have a small (very late...like 10 p.m.) dinner. And they may be onto something: Research shows those who frontload their calories in the beginning of their day lose weight more quickly than those who eat the majority of their calories at night. And with delicious breakfast options like a Spanish omelet studded with crispy potatoes, who wouldn’t want to dig in first thing in the morning?
The Mediterranean Diet Is Very Real
Seafood and produce take center stage on most menus in Spain. And when you’re in a country that’s a top producer of olive oil and wine—and the wine is literally cheaper than water—you take full advantage of eating the Med Diet.
Spaniards Don’t Eat at Restaurants Very Often
We ate out for every meal because we were on vacation and wanted to experience the culture (plus, we didn’t have a kitchen in our hotel room). But most Spaniards only eat at restaurants on special occasions. Though Spanish restaurants have plenty of healthy options, cooking at home reduces calories, sodium, and fat intake—and it’s something I’m definitely trying to do more often.
You Eat With a Group, and You Take Your Time
Eating is a social activity in Spain. Tapas are a natural ice breaker since you’re sharing food and eating (mostly) with your hands. That being said, meals could go on for hours.
Not once did our waiter or waitress come by to ask if we were ready for the check. You practically have to track them down and tackle them for it when you’re ready to leave. But enjoying your meal, drinking wine, and talking with friends—without being rushed—is a beautiful thing. It forces you to slow down and be a more mindful and present eater.
Treats Aren’t Off-Limits
Like tapas, Spanish desserts are small, but mighty. My two favorite desserts were Crema Catalana (a custard resembling creme brulee, except using milk instead of cream), and churros con chocolate. These were not your run-of-the-mill carnival churros. They were hot, fresh, doughy, crispy, and life-changing in the best way. And to add to the decadence, you’d dunk them into a bowl of rich dark chocolate sauce.
Again, these came in much smaller portions than typical American desserts, but oddly enough, I wasn't hankering for more. These treats were so decadent that you only needed a few bites to feel satiated (and this is coming from someone who takes desserts very seriously.)
Life lesson: Eat a little bit of something truly decadent instead of a lot of something that’s just “meh” tasting. Take it from the Spaniards: you’ll be way more satisfied.
Walking Is the Most Popular Mode of Transportation
I didn’t feel bad about drinking wine every night or eating a few Crema Catalanas a week because a) they’re delicious and b) we walked several miles per day. Spaniards are really into walking, and we went to bed with sore legs every single night. Granted, we were tourists trying to soak in the city (and scaling thousands of stairs at the Sagrada Familia), but walking in Spain is no joke.
Birmingham, Alabama— where I live—isn’t very walkable. But that doesn't mean I can't incorporate a bit more movement into my day. I can (and do) do things like park my car a bit farther away from the building, or sneak in a few extra steps by taking walk breaks at work. My fiance and I also try to take a long walk together with the dog every night after dinner to get moving.
Though I (sadly!) won’t be drinking wine at every meal or finishing every evening with a pot of Crema Catalana, I think there’s tremendous value to seeing how people across the pond live. My short time in Spain inspired me walk more, treat meals as a social activity (read: get off my phone and be present with the people I’m dining with), and eat higher-quality food in smaller quantities. So, even though I had to leave Spain and come back to America, I came back with a much healthier mindset around food.