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