If you spend enough time in a foreign country, you’ll notice that most natives are sure they know the right way to do certain things. Even if they’ve travelled abroad and have been in touch with foreign habits, some concepts never change in their mind, some customs remain their point of reference forever, and these cultural boundary stones make them believe that, overseas, they just don’t do it right. Food is one of these things. What you eat and the way you eat it is never better than in your homeland.

Let’s compare the food habits of three different countries: The Netherlands, France and Spain. In each one of them, people are sure they’ve got the healthiest diet. Not only do they praise the quality of their national products but they also point out the healthy way they eat their meals. The following descriptions of daily meals are stereotypes, so we must bear in mind that these food patterns are subject to variation from one individual to another.

Typical of northern countries, the Dutch eat ‘cold’ at midday, at the work place (a cheese or ham sandwich made of whole wheat bread and some fruit), and they have a ‘hot’ dinner at six o’clock at home (a soup for starters, meat with vegetables and a load of potatoes for second course; no bread). But for the fruit, their breakfast is similar to their lunch.

A classic French breakfast consists of the famous croissant, although it’s more common to have toast in the morning. Then you have two ‘hot meals’, lunch at midday, at the cafeteria, and dinner at eight, at home; the former being more copious than the latter (a salad, meat prepared with a creamy sauce, cheese and dessert; bread is served with every meal).

As for the Spaniards, their atypical time table sees them having one breakfast at home (biscuits or pastry), another one at the local bar during work time (toast with jam), lunch at two or three o’clock in a restaurant (pasta for the first course, meat or fish for the second, bread with everything, an orange juice for dessert), an afternoon snack at six (ham sandwich), and dinner at nine or ten when they eventually go back home (similar to lunch, although a bit lighter).

At the weekends, Spaniards have their meals even later, and it’s no exaggeration to say that when they are finishing their lunch, the Dutch are starting their dinner. At that time, I reckon the French must be somewhere in between, very likely savouring their favourite cheese. Anyway, it seems that the further south their country, the later people actually eat.

As mentioned at the outset, natives from these three countries are convinced of having the healthiest diet of all. Among other arguments, the Dutch praise the fact that they eat more greens, the French that they have no GM-food on their plate, and the Spaniards that they follow the utterly well-balanced Mediterranean diet. Strange though it may seem, obesity is an issue in all three countries.

In my book, the problem doesn’t lie in what you actually put on your bread, nor how late you toast it, but rather in the quantity of stuff you spread on it. The Dutch spread margarine, the French butter, and the Spaniards olive oil. To decide which spread is the best is, after all, just a matter of taste.

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