Lunch in the Netherlands: culture, bread, and society

It’s your first day at work as an international, and you are about to enjoy lunch with your Dutch colleagues. You reach the cafeteria, only to be shocked that what is on the menu is, well, just a sandwich.

Not only is it just a sandwich, but it’s also completely overpriced — and it doesn’t even contain that many ingredients. Ahhhh, lunch in the Netherlands!

Coming from outside of the Netherlands, Dutch lunch customs might seem a bit odd. Why is the Dutch lunch so minimalist? What’s up with all the sandwiches? Is it simply an acquired taste that takes time getting used to, like the wonderfully bleak Dutch weather?

We’ve done the leg work to find out all you need to know about having lunch in the Netherlands.

The history of sandwiches for lunch

The Dutch love for sandwiches — be it as broodjes or boterhams — comes from a much older, ancestral love for bread. Bread was a hot topic in the 17th century Netherlands, and we still see that today.

Back in the old days, it was the staple food, eaten with cheese or butter during breakfast, combined with meat or hutspot (a dish combining meat and vegetables) for lunch, and enjoyed with porridge in the evening.

Bread was such an integral part of society that different types of bread came to symbolize different social statuses. The working class consumed bread made out of coarse wheat or rye, while the rich ate white bread.

1958-painting-dutch-baker-taking-bread-out-the-oven
Painting of a Dutch Golden Age baker flexing his bread straight outta the oven. Image: Rijksmuseum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Bread was taken so seriously that the government even appointed brood-wegers: inspectors whose role was to visit bakeries and make sure that the bread was the right size and weight, made of high-quality ingredients, and properly baked. Bakers not following the right procedures would get a hefty fine.

As you can see, bread is not just simply bread for the Dutch. Bread is culture. Bread is civilization. Bread has been bred into Dutch life. And if bread is the building block of Dutch society, then sandwiches are the art. You can check some of their sandwich art on the Instagram page of DailyDutchLunch.

Or even better, check out our video on the ultimate Dutch sandwich:

Lunch culture in the Netherlands today

The Dutch Golden Age may be over, but the bread remains, and with it comes a wide assortment of sandwiches. Traditionally, the Dutch start their lunch around midday, between 12 and 12:30 PM. The time for lunch varies per workplace, but it usually lasts between 30 minutes to an hour. Or sometimes even 15 minutes behind your desk, if you are into that kind of productivity.

dutch-boterham-with-aged-cheese-lunch-in-the-netherlands
A classic Dutch boterham with cheese, a delicacy. Image: Takeaway/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

Lunch is a moment of social gathering, as co-workers flock together to eat and socialise. In canteens at workplaces, one of the few warm meals you can usually get besides the cold Protestant sandwiches (a.k.a. bread with butter and ham or cheese) is soup.

We suggest you dip your sandwich in the soup to have somewhat of a warm meal. (If your Dutchie co-workers then ostracise you for committing such sacrilege, well, you didn’t hear this from us!)

Some people might bring lunch packed from home, but that’s usually also — as you might have already guessed — a sandwich. How the Dutch manage to survive through the sun-less winters by essentially eating two breakfasts in a row we can only guess.

It could be argued that the reason why the Dutch eat such a light lunch is to maintain productivity. We all know what it feels like when you eat excessively, only to later find yourself wishing to casually pass out in a corner while the food is being digested. By having a light lunch, the Dutch can return straight to work feeling energized.

How they don’t get hungry after two hours is yet another mystery. Perhaps it is all about that good discipline and Calvinist work ethic.

How does the Dutch lunch culture compare to other European countries?

The light lunch argument makes sense when you start to think about lunch in other European cultures, especially the southern ones.

Just take a look at the Italians. Their lunch break is two hours long, usually from 1 PM until 3 PM. Most shops close at this time and the Italians go all-in with their lunch, having a two-course meal together with a side dish, dessert, and a coffee.

outdoors-lunch-in-italy
Italians enjoy their lunch very differently than the Dutchies. Image: NinasCreativeCorner/Pixabay

The French have a similarly extravagant lunch culture. It’s not uncommon to have a four-course meal, and lunch is considered a celebratory moment of food and socialising with friends.

In the end, perhaps it is all just a trade-off. The French and Italians have rich lunches, but do they get their work done? Debatable. They might have nicer weather and a joie de vivre attitude, but are they efficient? Do their trains arrive on time? (wait, nevermind) Did they reclaim 17% of their territory from the sea using advanced dykes?

The answer to all of these is probably no. So perhaps this is just a story of how culture gets intertwined with climate and the weather. If the Dutch didn’t have bad weather and weren’t constantly fighting the seas, they wouldn’t be the country they are now. Maybe they would have better food during lunch, but hey, who are we to look down on bread with margarine?

Our readers’ experiences with the Dutch lunch

In order to get to the bottom of the cultural phenomena known as the Dutch lunch, we asked some of our readers from our awesome Facebook group about their experiences. Here are some of our favourite answers:

Our own Bobby Salomon, from Amsterdam, gave us an answer akin to the efficiency argument regarding Dutch lunch:

“Because there’s no time, it costs too much, it’s difficult to bring and/or keep warm if you make it yourself and — personally — I’m really uncomfortable with a warm stomach if I still have to do stuff after.”

Kostas from Greece, despite coming from a culture with arguably better food, seems to understand that a heavy lunch and productive work don’t mix well.

“I’m from Greece so I won’t brag too much, but our food is absolutely fantastic.

Regarding Dutch food, it has influences from nice cuisines and on the contrary, Dutch people really enjoy food. Lunch is usually something more light and fresh because they take lunch really early as well as dinner and therefore do not prefer heavy things when taking a break then going back to work 4 hours or so.”

Finally, one of our readers, Kenneth, proposed a follow-up question that really left all of us thinking:

“The next question should have been ‘Why did the Dutch people raid the whole world for spices hundreds of years ago only for their descendants not to use them?'”

(Thanks for spotting our meme Kenneth! 🙌 )

lunch-in-the-netherlands-meme-spices
No spices at lunch in the Netherlands (or breakfast for that matter). Image: DutchReview

That ties up our article on Dutch lunch, and we wholeheartedly suggest that you should go and get yourself a boterham in celebration. Remember, you are not eating just bread with ham, you are eating culture.

Do you have a favourite Dutch sandwich? What do you hate the most about lunch in the Netherlands? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: Takeaway/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0  

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2020 and was fully updated in October 2021 for your reading pleasure. 

Vlad Moca-Grama
Vlad was born and raised in Brasov, Romania and came to the Hague to study. When he isn't spending time missing mountains or complaining about the lack of urban exploration locations in the Netherlands, you can find him writing at Dutch Review.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Even though I lived in the Netherlands for only 12 of my 81 years I was raised with Dutch cooking. As far as sandwiches go, they were always open faced when eating at home. I never had bread with porridge, but remember having to eat it as a dessert ( yuck) and never had it with hutspot either. I like oatmeal porridge here in Canada cooked in water and thick, the one from my youth was cooked in milk and not very thick ( read slimy) I hated it and ate it with a pinched nose.

  2. A born & raised proud to be Dutch girl, I love sandwiches!!! No cheese though, but lunchMeat, especially liverwurst (smeerworst) or cheese spread (smeerkaas. I also love filet americain… Not just for lunch, but breakfast as well and sometimes dinner, like on a Saturday with soup!!! ❤️??

  3. I lived in The Netherlands for the first 30 years of my life. I no longer eat bread or lunch but the best lunch I can think of, is dark Dutch or European bread with medium/old Gouda cheese. I can’t think of anything tastier.

  4. I grew up in The Netherlands eating bread for breakfast and lunch. On there: hagelslag, cheese, jam or lunchmeat ( leverworst and filet americain as favorites). Having moved to the US after over 50 years, I still eat bread for breakfast and lunch. It’s not just easy and fast but a lot healthier than a lot of other options! Broodje gezond and tijgerbrood are my favorites! I’ve always wondered if the love of bread and dairy makes the Dutch so tall…..😉

  5. If you have a speculaas sandwich you’ve got every spice available on your bread. Speculaas kruiden contain most tropical spices. Just sayin’……

  6. Grilled cheese sandwich, can’t be beat. I’ll use Gouda, Colby or a combination of the two lighty grilled in extra virgin olive oil, dipped in ketchup or a ketchup mayonnaise combination.

  7. It’s a matter of getting used to eating sandwiches, it’s actually a light meal and definitely keeps the lethargic feeling away . Have lived here for 10 years and it rocks!

  8. I think you mean “stampot” and not “hutspot”. But even then, it’s not common to eat it with bread. I’m always curious how foreign journalists get those weird information.

  9. As a person deeply interested in the Netherlands and as Italian I find the second half of this article highly debatable if not ridicolous, for it’s only based on misconceptions. Lunch breaks in Italy usually lasts from half an hour to an hour. France may not have neat sandwiches but it has atomic bombs. Both countries have an international standing that the Netherlands doesn’t have. Having said this, the rest of the article is quite interesting.

  10. Left Holland in my 20″s, in the 1950″s, recently took one of my sons for an extended visit, he was totally fascinated by all the toppings the dutch have, a tablefull of meats, cheeses, herring, and of course chocolate, a trip to Albert Hein was an adventure. It is now the request for casual get togethers of a large family.

  11. Hey man,
    japanese people don’t eat sandwiches for lunch (and drink milk aside 🙂 ).
    Japanese have also complex recipes that take a couple of days to be completed.

  12. Born and bred Dutch lass here, I have never heard of eating hutspot with bread. I think you meant stoofpot (a meat based stew) because you don’t mention the hutspot having potatoes as a main ingredient. Same for eating bread with porridge, no one does that here. Having bread for an evening meal, yes, that’s quite common, usually accompanied with a salad or soup. In the olden days (think 1940/50) it was quite normal to have a hot meal for lunch. I believe that to this day in certain regions and families that is still the case, especially the older generation will still have a hot lunch. I remember visiting my grandparents in the 70ies and 80ies and we would have potatoes, meat and veg for lunch and a lighter evening meal.
    Having a kantine at work, as in one that provides lunch to buy, isn’t standard in The Netherlands imho, especially for smaller companies.
    I agree with the comment by Koos on foreign journalists and their sources, because a lot of the time I question where they get their info from when it’s about so-called favourite Dutch foods. I once read that apparently salty liquorice is our favourite movie snack??? Maybe for a tiny minority, but definitely not for the majority of the Dutch.

  13. As Italian, I think that some of the information shared about Italy are not correct, since our lunch break lasts up until one hour and that we usually eat only one course.
    Moreover, the duration of lunch doesn’t affect productivity: when I worked in Milan, the job was very intense, so it was nice to have a hour to recharge before starting again.
    And we don’t need to take land from water, since we have enough space for everybody I guess.
    Apart from these things, the rest of the article was interesting, especially the historical facts and traditions.

  14. My parents were born and raised in Holland. Came to the US in 1928. I was therefore raised in a very Dutch home We ate all the things you mentioned including Hutsput. I am now 86 years old and I still eat a sandwich everyday for lunch. And it is always ham and cheese. (Must be in the genes!) My favorite cheese is Leitsa Kansas. (Leyden cheese)

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