Ahhhh lunch in the Netherlands! It’s your first day at work as an international, and you are about to have lunch with your Dutch colleagues. Especially if you come from a Southern European context, 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, it does not even contain that many ingredients, as well as being slightly overpriced for its value.
Dutch lunch customs might seem strange coming from the outside. Why is it so minimalist? (being nice here people) What’s up with all the sandwiches? Perhaps it is simply an acquired taste that takes time getting used to, like the wonderfully bleak Dutch weather. Read on to find out all you need to know about lunch in the Netherlands.
What’s up with Dutch people and sandwiches during 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 17th century Netherlands, and we still see that today. Back in the old days, it was the staple food, being eaten with cheese or butter during breakfast, combined with meat or hutspot (a dish combining meat and vegetables) for lunch, and eaten with porridge during the evening.
Bread was such an integral part of society that types of bread came to symbolize social status. The working class consumed bread made out of coarse wheat or rye, while the rich consumed white bread.
Bread was so integral to society that the government appointed brood-wegers, which were inspectors that had the role of going to bakeries, checking that the bread was the right size and weight, made of good materials and properly baked. So seriously did the Dutch take bread, that those who did not follow procedures would get a hefty fine.
So as you can see, bread is not just simply bread for the Dutch. Bread is culture. Bread is civilization. Bread has been bred into their life. And if bread is the building block of a society, then sandwiches are the art. You can check some of their sandwich art at the Instagram page of DailyDutchLunch.
Or even better, check out our video on the ultimate Dutch sandwich:
Lunch culture in the Netherlands
The golden days are over, but the bread remains. And with the bread, a wide assortment of sandwiches. Traditionally, the Dutch start their lunch from around midday, from 12-12:30 to 1 PM. The time varies depending on the work place, but it usually last between 30 minutes or an hour. Or even 15 minutes behind your desk, if you are into that kind of productivity.
It is a moment of social gathering, as co-workers flock together to eat and socialize. Usually in canteens at workplaces, one of the few warm meals you could potentially get is soup. The rest is usually the cold, Protestant sandwiches, bread with butter and ham or cheese. You could always try, however, to dip your sandwich in the soup in an attempt to have a somewhat warm meal. (If your Dutchie co-workers then ostracize you for committing such sacrilege, well, you didn’t hear this from us!)
Some people might bring lunch packed from home, but that is usually still, as you already guessed, a sandwich. Otherwise, it is up to the canteen to provide the essentials. How the Dutch manage to survive through a sun-less winter by essentially having two breakfasts in a row is anyone’s guess.
Internationals when they understand lunch in the Netherlands:
It can be argued that the reason why the Dutch eat such a light lunch is to maintain productivity. We all know how it is to eat excessively, only to find ourselves wishing to casually pass out in a corner while the food is digested. Therefore by having an easy lunch in the Netherlands, the Dutch can return straight to work feeling energized. How they do not get hungry after 2 hours is another mystery, yet perhaps it is all about that good disciplined Calvinist work ethic.
How does the Dutch lunch culture compare to other European countries?
The light lunch argument makes sense when you also start to think about other lunch European cultures, especially the southern ones. Just take a look at the Italians. Their lunch break is two hours long, between 13:00 and 15:00. Most shops close at this time. They go all-in with their lunch, by having a two-course meal, together with a side-dish, dessert, coffee and milk.
The French have a similarly extravagant lunch culture. It is not uncommon to have a four-course meal, and lunch is considered a celebratory moment of food and socializing with friends.
In the end, perhaps it is all about a trade-off. The French and Italians might have rich lunches, but do they get their work done? Debatable. Sure, they might have better weather, a joie de vivre attitude, but are they efficient? Do their trains arrive in 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 all just a story of how culture gets intertwined with climate and the weather. If the Dutch did not have bad weather and constant fighting with 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 upon bread with margarine?
We asked our readers to tell us their experiences with Dutch lunch
In order to get to the bottom of the cultural phenomena known as Dutch lunch, we asked some of our readers from our awesome Facebook group what was their experience with it. Here are some of our favorite answers:
Andra, from Romania, said the following about lunch in the Netherlands:
“1 hour, with people, at the office I bring my own lunch. Today i didn’t, so I made toast with butter, fried eggs and avocado AND I STILL got the “oh that’s fancy” ?♀️ when I bring my leftovers I’m asked if I ordered food last night. When I say no, I get the “WOW YOU MADE THIS?”, as if I just showed up with some fine dining meal….they’re a fun bunch. Gastronomy isn’t exactly a big part of their DNA, let’s put it that way.”
Want to impress your Dutch workmates with your extravagant sandwiches? Seems like the answer is to put some avocado on it.
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 work don’t mix.
“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! 🙂 )
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, straight from the lowlands.
What is your favorite Dutch sandwich, or alternative food to eat during Dutch lunch? Or what do you hate the most about lunch in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments.