Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?
An Italian family enjoying an outdoor meal. Eating habits vary around the country, but Italian mealtimes are sacred. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Light lunches and skipped meals? Not in Italy. Silvia Marchetti explains why mealtimes are set and involve multiple courses, even on a busy weekday or in the scorching summer heat.


Foreign visitors are often struck by Italians’ regimented eating schedules. We’re no panino-on-the-go people, unless we’re on a diet or catching a plane. We like to sit down at the table and enjoy three meals a day with at least two courses, even during the working week.

Mettere i piedi sotto al tavolo (to put one’s feet under the table) is sacrosanct, particularly at lunchtime.

Timings vary from region to region, with northerners more akin to foreign habits, lunching early at around 12.30pm and having dinner at 7-7.30 pm. In the south people often have lunch as late as 2.30pm and dinner at 9pm.


Generally speaking many families across Italy have a fixed lunch time at 1.30pm and dinner at 8pm, when state TV launches the evening news.

Dinner is often the only communal meal in the week: after a day’s work people get together for quality time and it can be a problem if all members of the family are not there.

READ ALSO: Eating well, driving badly, and daily naps: The habits you pick up in Italy

This die-hard dinner habit traces back to when extended families (be it aristocrats, the bourgeois or farmers) lived under the same roof and gathered at supper. For the poor it was the only meal they could afford, about all they had to eat.

In Italy lunch is never skipped, especially Sunday lunch which is a ritual involving nonni, toddlers, pets and fidanzati (lovers).

While dinner is sacred, breakfast is the smallest meal of all. We don’t indulge in the continental-style buffets loved in some countries, and there’s no bacon or eggs.

An espresso or cappuccino with some biscuits, a slice of jam crostata or a quick cornetto at the bar will suffice (there are people however who eat pizza stuffed with mortadella in Rome). And breakfast timing is very flexible, depending on when you start work. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons why living in Italy can be bad for your health

Breakfast is the only meal that might be eaten on the go in Italy - and even then, there's time to visit your local bar. Photo by Bertrand Borie on Unsplash

Eating is Italians’ favourite activity. The culinary selection is so wide that ‘non c’è che l’imbarazzo della scelta’ (choosing is embarrassing), and there’s always a major temptation and excuse to eat. 

The idea of eating as a key convivial moment hails back to the Ancient Romans who had three meals a day (well, at least the rich ones) and were constantly munching on fruits and bread in between.

Eating well, and abundantly, is like a drug that relaxes both mind and body. Italians have a proverb: ‘anche un prete a tavola ha preso moglie’ (even a priest found a wife at the table), meaning that with a belly full of food and wine anything is possible, even a miracle.


The obsession with three proper meals per day is mainly down to social changes. Up until the early 1900s, all many families had was one meal per day, especially in the poorer rural areas. They’d sit together and share one single platter of rice or pasta, perhaps a sardine or sausage. With the post-war economic boom more food was made available to families, so having three meals a day and making these as rich as possible became a status symbol.

READ ALSO: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

There’s also a psychological side. People I know get sad if they happen to skip a meal. But having to have a substantial lunch no matter the outside temperature, even if it’s a scorching hot August day, is a rule which I personally dislike. I never skip a meal but keep them light. 

Even for picnics and beach lunches, Italians stuff the car with cooked pasta, insalata di riso, sausages and omelettes and all sorts of cheeses and cold cuts.

Big Italian families devouring platefuls of Amatriciana pasta and fried cotolette under a wide tent-like beach umbrella, sweating and panting, and then collapsing into a deep slumber, is a regular scene across Italy, from Liguria to Sicily.

Families eat lasagne or cold pasta out of huge aluminium containers with forks and spoons, followed by hot coffee and digestive liqueurs. Some even bring a tiny barbecue for the steaks and pancetta, so beaches are pervaded by a nasty smell of smoke mixed with sweat and suntan lotion.


While this may seem like a crazy fuss to many outsiders, to Italians their eating rituals are a deadly serious matter. 

READ ALSO: 34 sure-fire ways to truly offend an Italian

I remember one hot July day going on a boat trip with friends to the Pontine islands off Rome’s coast. The sea was rough, but the owners insisted on cooking antipasto with squid, carbonara, fritto di pesce, smashed potatoes and a huge ricotta-filled cassata cake. 

They were Neapolitans so you can’t really say ‘no thank you’, they’d have it no other way and were offended when I attempted to turn down one dish. I felt sick and almost threw up, it was scorching hot, I could hardly breathe and the food literally leavened in my stomach. I would have killed to have just a slice of melon and some crackers.

It might sound a bit of a cliché but the focus on three meals a day is an identity trait, part of the typical Italian character, just as much as cool clothes and flashy cars.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also