Eating Alone: My Experiences as an American in Argentina
I knew we were eating early when the hostess gave us a funny look and then explained that the restaurant didn’t open for another half hour. It was already 8:00 p.m., and I was starving. We sat outside the restaurant and waited, my stomach growling impatiently. Finally, 8:30 p.m. arrived, the restaurant opened, and we were taken to our table.
We were the only ones in the whole place.
We had a nice dinner, a bottle of wine, and were discussing ordering dessert when another couple arrived.
As we ate our dessert, more people started coming–whole families, groups of friends, and young couples with children.
By the time we got our check around 10:30 p.m., the place was packed, and there was a line out the door.
Learning When to Eat in Argentina
Since moving to Argentina from the United States, I have made many adjustments, from dealing with culture shock to learning Spanish on the fly. Surprisingly, one of the hardest changes for me has been what I love the most: food. Not necessarily what to eat (that part’s easy!), but when to eat and what to eat when.
While there are many Argentine specialties that are new to me, a lot of the food is similar to what I would eat in the United States: pasta, seafood, beef, chicken, pizza, sandwiches, french fries, and ice cream. The major differences are the eating schedules, a favorite topic of discussion with friends from Argentina and the United States.
Below are two “typical” eating schedules comparing the United States with Argentina. While these schedules certainly do not apply to every individual every day, they are based on my observations in my seven months in Argentina. [Slight variations may apply based on season, city, profession, or family traditions.]
Typical Meal Schedule – United States
7:00 Breakfast: 2 eggs, sausage or bacon, toast, a bowl of cereal with milk or granola with yogurt, fruit, orange juice, coffee or tea
12:00 Lunch: a sandwich, salad, or left overs with fruit
4:00 Snack: a piece of fruit or granola bar
7:00 Dinner: a portion of meat, salad, 2 vegetable side dishes, and a light dessertTypical Meal Schedule – Argentina
7:00 Breakfast: toast or medialunas, coffee or tea
11:00 Mid-morning Breakfast: coffee or tea with a small cookie
2:00 Lunch: a portion of meat, salad, and 2 vegetable side dishes, and dessert
5:00 Merienda: medialunas, coffee or tea
10:00 Dinner: a smaller portion of meat, salad, and dessert
After countless conversations with my friends and family from both Argentina and the United States about the differences between the two countries and their eating habits, here are some of my observations.
Morning: First, Argentinians can’t believe Americans eat such large meals for breakfast, especially since Argentinians eat very little first thing in the morning. Second, the idea of eating eggs for breakfast is generally appalling to most Argentinians; they’ll eat an egg quiche for lunch or an omelette for dinner, but never for breakfast. The same goes for eating sausage or bacon at breakfast. For as much meat as Argentinians eat, they save their quota of meat for lunch and dinner. A simple medialuna (or two or five) or other sweet pastry with coffee suffices for breakfast.
Midday: In general, Argentinians eat several snacks throughout the day: possibly one before lunch and definitely one after lunch. These snacks usually look similar to breakfast (coffee and a pastry), but it could also be a tray of meats and cheeses. While Americans usually opt for “grab and go” snacks, Argentinians often take time to sit at a café with friends a couple times throughout the day.
Lunches are typically much larger in Argentina (followed by a 2-4 hour siesta in most cities), while lunches in the U.S. are smaller (squeezed into a 30-60 minute break in the work day). In Argentina, stores close for a majority of the afternoon (usually from 1-5 p.m.), but are open until late in the evening (until 10 or 11 p.m.); the workday is stretched out over a longer period of time but with more frequent and much longer breaks. In America, the workday is more compact, with fewer breaks; a typical workday ends much earlier, around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.
“Do you really eat dinner at 6:00 p.m.?” The #1 question I get asked by Argentinians.
Evening: Americans are baffled by Argentinians eating so late at night, just as Argentinians can’t understand why Americans eat so early. Happy hour in Argentina is usually from 7:00-9:00 at night, compared to the U.S. happy hour from 4:00-6:00 p.m. Restaurants in Argentina don’t even open until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., and they aren’t truly “busy” until 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. While Americans eat earlier, usually around 7:00 p.m., dinners are typically larger than in Argentina.
In general, Argentinians eat smaller, more spread out meals and Americans eat fewer, larger meals. Although both schedules are quite different (and rarely make sense to the other), both schedules work for the people who live in each country. The Argentine eating schedule wouldn’t work in the United States and vice-versa. And that’s okay.
However, it’s me who’s caught in the middle, trying to fit my “normal” eating schedule into the Argentinian one. And it just doesn’t work. While I could do my own thing for breakfast and lunch, secretly scrambling eggs in the morning and eating a ham sandwich at home at noon, my unruly early-eating dinner habits were harder to hide. Friends and family in Argentina would invite me to eat dinner with them–at 10:30 p.m.! Once, I tried eating a snack at 6:00 p.m. to tide me over until our late dinner. My “snack” ended up dinner-sized, and before I knew it, I was stuffed. At dinner, I tried sharing a steak with my husband, but at 11:00 p.m. the American in me just wanted to eat some ice-cream and go to bed.
Adjusting to the Argentine Eating Schedule
Over time, I’ve found myself slowly adjusting. The first time I started cooking dinner and realized it was already 9:00 p.m., I declared myself a true Argentinian. Better yet, we didn’t finish eating until 10:30 p.m. On evenings we’re meeting friends or family late, I now know how to pace myself so that I’m hungry for dinner but not starving at 11:00 p.m. I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy eating a small snack, taking a nap, and staying out late with friends.
Through all of this, I’ve learned a lot about my personal eating habits, and I’ve definitely had to become more flexible. I’ve included some tips below that have helped me reach my goals for healthy food choices while maintaining a (more) Argentinian eating schedule. After all, no one wants to be “that crazy American” eating alone all the time. It took me a while, but I’ve finally arrived to dinner right on time. It’s 10:30 p.m., and it’s time to share a steak.
Tips for Adjusting to a New Eating Schedule
Drink water: Coffee and alcohol greatly affect the sleep-deprived, jet-lagged body. So does being dehydrated. I’ve found that drinking water at every meal (and staying away from other beverages) when I’ve just arrived in a new place helps me to adjust. Trust me. It’s hard landing in Argentina and not drinking wine immediately, but your body will thank you for waiting a couple days.
Eat healthy snacks: Even with delicious pastries surrounding me, I try to opt for fruit, yogurt, or a smoothie. These are sweet, filling, healthy, and good for digestion.
When in doubt, eat less: Share a dish or go for a salad or other light dish. You can always grab a snack later. I’d rather leave a restaurant and be hungry again in an hour than be miserably stuffed for the next three. But maybe that’s just me.
Listen to your body: Be aware that you may experience bouts of grumpiness as your body adjusts to a new schedule. Learn what your body needs to function, whether it’s a nap, a hug, or a good run. Taking care of yourself is key, especially when traveling.