The key etiquette rules on how to eat at the right mealtime. Mealtime etiquette helps you set the appropriate mealtime for your event. Be the ideal host and avoid any embarrassment.
What mealtime etiquette is
When you host an event, you should set a time that is convenient for your guests. Invitations set at a too early or too late time are against mealtime etiquette.
Mealtime etiquette is the set of rules to eat meals or invite guests at the most appropriate time. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect your guests or make you look unpolite. Mealtime etiquette does not cover the rules for when you should start eating at the dining table.
If you are hosting, follow mealtime etiquette to appropriately invite and host your guests.
If you are a guest, respect mealtime etiquette rules to manage your appetite and avoid offending your hosts.
Mealtime etiquette rules
1) Know the local mealtime etiquette
Mealtime etiquette largely depends on the country or region you are in. If you are unfamiliar with the local customs, learn the local mealtime etiquette before extending an invitation to your guests.
In general, regions with warmer weather tend to eat dinner later in the evening. Countries with colder weather and fewer sunshine hours tend to eat dinner earlier. Dinner time in the UK or in Germany starts at around 6 pm. In the Mediterranean countries, such as Spain or the South of Italy, dinner rarely happens earlier than 8 pm.
Ideally, we should plan an interval of 2 or 3 hours between dinner and bedtime. Eating too close to bedtime can interfere with our digestion and our ability to absorb calories. A late dinner can affect the quality of sleep too. For this reason, the mealtime etiquette for all the meals of the day depends on when we eat dinner.
Thus, the mealtime of breakfast and lunch is usually set as a consequence of dinner time. Countries with an early mealtime for dinner tend to have earlier mealtimes for breakfast and lunch. Lunchtime in the UK and Germany starts at 12 pm. In Spain and in the South of Italy, lunchtime is rarely earlier than 1.30 pm.
Furthermore, meals in urban areas tend to happen later than in rural areas. This is due to the pace of modern urban life compared to rural life.
2) Mealtime should fit the daily routine of your guests
When you invite guests for an event, you should take into consideration their daily schedule.
Usually, guests with younger children tend to eat earlier. Their schedule should allow time for care and depends on their kids’ routine.
If your guests work, they will be able to join you for dinner after work. Similarly, their lunch can happen only during the common lunch break hours.
Take into consideration the necessary driving or transit times. That is, the amount of time that your guests need to reach you. If you live on the other side of the city or in a remote area, the invitation time should allow for the necessary transit time.
3) Every meal has its mealtime etiquette
Mealtime etiquette for breakfast
The common mealtime for breakfast is between 7 am and 10 am. In general, you should eat breakfast within 60 minutes of waking up. While you should not eat breakfast later than two hours before lunchtime. Social breakfasts should last between 30 and 60 minutes.
Try not to interfere with your guests’ daily routine. Do not set a very early breakfast with guests that enjoy sleeping longer, or a late breakfast with early-bird guests.
When to have a coffee break
A coffee break should happen at least 60 minutes away from any main meal. Coffee after 5 pm is unusual.
Coffee breaks should be short and last no longer than 30 minutes. Italians call their coffee “Espresso”, which literally means “express”. Social afternoon coffees are increasingly popular and may last longer.
Mealtime etiquette for lunch
Lunch should happen between 4 and 5 hours after breakfast, but not earlier than 12 pm. Avoid eating lunch later than 3 pm. Lunchtime customs may change between weekdays and weekends due to the local working hours.
Mealtime etiquette for brunch
Brunch should happen between breakfast and lunch. Thus, between 10 am and 12 pm.
However, mealtime for brunch can widely change across regions. Even in the same region, people may interpret the appropriate time for brunch in a different way. When you make brunch plans, be specific with your guests about the time.
When to have afternoon tea
British have their afternoon tea at 5 pm. You can invite your guests one hour earlier, at 4 pm. An afternoon tea invitation set later than 5 pm is unusual.
When to have afternoon snacks
For any social afternoon snack, you should allow at least one hour between the snack and both lunch and dinner times. The appropriate time should not be earlier than 3 pm or later than 5 pm.
When to have pre-dinner drinks
Aperitivo and aperitif are pre-dinner drinks. By definition, you should have them before dinner. The appropriate time is around 60 minutes before dinner.
The traditional time for pre-dinner drinks starts at 7 pm and is not earlier than 6 pm. Pre-dinner drinks after 9 pm are unusual and against mealtime etiquette. Doing otherwise would force your guests to have dinner after 10 pm.
Mealtime etiquette for dinner
Ideally, plan an interval of 2 or 3 hours between dinner and bedtime.
The appropriate mealtime for dinner depends on the local customs and on your guests’ schedules. Dinner before 7 pm or past 10 pm is unusual and can be inconvenient for your guests.
When to have after-dinner drinks
The appropriate time for after-dinner drinks depends on the time your guests usually have dinner at.
If you and your guests had dinner together, after-dinner drinks should last at least 30 or 45 minutes. Otherwise, they should last at least 60 minutes. The appropriate starting time is between 8 pm and 11 pm. Starting after 11 pm is considered very late.
4) Manage your appetite according to mealtimes
Dining etiquette requires us to eat a minimum and appropriate amount of food when eating socially. Not eating the food that is served is bad manners. Eating too much food looks greedy and is bad manners too. Thus, you should go to an event with an appetite, but you should not be rabid.
If you lack appetite, try to fast for a couple of hours before the invitation time. Alternatively, you can do some light physical activity to trigger your appetite. Such as going for a short walk.
If you tend to have a strong appetite, eat a quick snack before the event.
Mealtime etiquette: the worst mistakes
The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors.
A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.
Avoid the worst mealtime etiquette mistakes.
- 8/10. Setting the mealtime at an inconvenient time.
- 7/10. Not managing your appetite.
- 7/10. Setting a mealtime that is inappropriate for the occasion.
- 6/10. Disrespecting the local mealtime etiquette.
- The Best Times to Eat: nm.org