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Why do Danes eat lunch so early?

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
Why do Danes eat lunch so early?
Many people in Denmark eat lunch between 12 and 12.30. Photo: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

If you are new to a Danish workplace, you might think that going for lunch at noon would be beating the lunchtime rush. The opposite is true. Lunchtime in Denmark begins as early as 11:30am and you won't find many eating after 1pm. We investigate this early eating habit.

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It is well known that Danes are punctual and when it comes to lunchtime, the same can be said, with most people eating by noon or 12:30pm. But why does lunch start so early?

Professor Karen Klitgaard Povlsen of Aarhus University's School of Communication and Culture believes the habit goes back hundreds of years. 

"Denmark used to be a farming country. When I was a child, I was raised on a farm and people got up very early in the morning and had their first coffee at around 9am and then lunch, which was warm, at around 11:30am. Then they slept for some hours. I think this pattern was more or less imitated by factories in the late 19th century," she told The Local.

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"But what I find really interesting is that in Denmark, unlike the rest of Europe, most people have their lunch at the same time, which is really rather unusual. Between 12pm and 12:30pm you won't find anyone in the office," she said.

Pupils at schools in Denmark tend to eat their lunch at noon and start their day at 8am, which is slightly earlier than other European countries. It appears adults follow the same pattern.

"The tradition to eat lunch early, at 12, might be that lunch in Denmark is not a big meal like other European countries. It's a cold meal and often a lunch pack from home, often a few sandwiches," Professor Lotte Holm of the University of Copenhagen told The Local. She has researched the social and cultural aspects of eating in various settings.

"In the workplace in Denmark, lunchtime is often around 30 minutes, with the aim that colleagues sit and eat together. There is of course an exception in certain workplaces, such as customer services and in hospitals where that's not possible.

"Eating lunch at a desk happens but is not considered good style, or how it should be. I don't think it happens that often," Holm said.

In her Nordic study, Holm and a team of researchers followed the eating patterns of people in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finalnd over a fifteen-year period, from 1997 to 2012.

The results showed distinctly different national rhythms to eating, which were fairly persistent.

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"Sweden deviates from the other Nordic countries because they have a social institutionalised mid-morning break called Fika, where they meet and have coffee and cinnamon buns. We have breaks at the workplace but they're not official like in Sweden," she said.

Denmark is a country of coffee drinkers so taking caffeine breaks definitely features in the workplace but they are not official breaks, Holm notes.

There are also differences between the Nordic countries when it comes to lunch.

"Denmark and Norway differ to Sweden and Finland, in that Denmark and Norway have cold lunches. We have lunch packs, whereas Sweden and Finland have hot lunches served in workplaces and in schools, where children eat for free.

"So there is more flexibility for the family evening meal in Sweden and Finland, because you eat more food at school and at work. In Denmark and Norway, there is more regular eating in the evening", Holm said.

"Family time is prioritised in Denmark, as it is for all the Nordic countries. A lot happens during family meals, it's socialising with children and teaching about language and morals and the world. It's considered very important and they do this in Nordic countries on a regular basis, not everyday but it's often," Holm said.

"Our Nordic study showed dinners in Denmark to be around 6:30pm or 7pm. In Norway they are earlier, so Denmark is not particularly early here, but compared to countries like Spain, they are. In Denmark, the evening meal is often a hot meal," she added.

It's also worth noting that the times Danish people eat meals are different to the times attributed to certain parts of the day.

For example, eating lunch (frokost) can be anywhere between 11:30am and 1:30pm but when someone says they want to meet at frokosttid (lunchtime), they mean noon-1pm.

This comes after formidddag (9am-noon) and morgen (6am-9am).

The evening meal (aftensmad) is eaten anywhere between 5:30pm and 8:30pm but evening time (aften) is 6pm-midnight, preceded by afternoon (eftermiddag) (noon-6pm). Night (nat) is midnight-6am.

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