Even though I’ve lived in Germany for years, the first time I was really faced with the German meal plan was when I was in the hospital after giving birth to my daughter in Berlin. After pushing an entire human being out I was expected to make do with cold cuts and hard rolls?
I knew Germans ate this way, but I’ve continued the American tradition of (over)eating. Cereal for breakfast (pancakes on weekends), fatty sandwiches for lunch and a big hot meal at night. The hospital was the first time I was forced to eat the German way, and I didn’t like it.
If you’re new to Germany or just curious how they do it, this guide covers how to eat and drink like a German.
GERMAN MEAL TIMES
Modern culture has altered traditional German meal times, but many people still abide by this routine.
Breakfast (das Frühstück)
A German breakfast is a variation of the “continental breakfast” found in many European countries, but with some German twists. Think sausage, Brot, and pastry. In most cases, a “German” breakfast (with some regional variations) is the same as breakfast in Austria and Switzerland.
Germans are serious about their baked goods and that starts with breakfast. A German breakfast consists of hearty Brot (breads) and Brötchen (rolls), decorated with butter, sweet jams and local honey, thinly sliced meats, cheese and even some Leberwurst. Top that off with a pot of coffee or tea, or get fancy with Saft (juice), gekochtes Ei (boiled egg) and yogurt or Quark topped with Obst (fruit) and muesli.
In Bavaria, Weisswurst is breakfast food. Two fat white sausages are served in a little pot of warm water, typically with a soft pretzel and sweet Senf (mustard). Tradition holds that the sausage must be consumed before noon…which is reasonable enough until you realize you should wash it down with a Hefeweizen beer.
A bakery (Bäckerei) or Konditorei can prep you for the daily grind with mountains of delicious German pastries (savory and sweet) and coffee to-go. A café offers more elaborate options with the addition of Spiegelei (fried egg), Rührei (scrambled eggs) and fruit. This is also typical for a hotel breakfast in German-speaking Europe, along with many of the menu items mentioned above.
Weekends are a different matter, with languid breakfasts almost always stretching into lunch (Germans have perfected brunch). While bakeries are open even on Sunday for families to get fresh rolls, many people choose to go out to eat. Practically every restaurant has a weekend brunch menu. In Berlin brunch costs about 10 euros, an excellent value for a day full of eating.
The Second Breakfast (zweites Frühstück) • Mid-morning Break (Pause)
A quick meal between breakfast and lunch is common. Many German schools even have an official Pausenbrot. At my daughter’s Krippe, they have breakfast between 8:00-9:00 than Obstfrühstück just an hour and a half later. No worries about her going hungry with the Germans. This could also be called Zwischenmahlzeit (between-meal-time) or Zweites Frühstück (second breakfast).
Vesper is another name for a snack and could be used for the morning pause, or another snack in the afternoon between lunch and dinner.
Lunch (das Mittagessen)
In Germany, lunch is THE MEAL of the day. This may be the day’s only hot meal, and it is usually served punctually between noon and 2:00. Workers and schoolchildren would traditionally return home so the family could eat together.
Understandably, this German custom is getting harder to maintain. Quick meals are becoming the standard. If you want a quick meal in the middle of the day, try an Imbiss (snack booth) for Bratwurst, Currywurst, Buletten/Frikadellen and the ever-present Pommes (French fries) or Kartoffelsalat (German potato salad). You could also try a Metzgerei (butcher) which is one of my favorite places for a fresh, inexpensive, delectable meal.
Coffee and Cake (Kaffee und Kuchen)
Kaffee und Kuchen is a cherished tradition. Though few people have time for it everyday, this is an opportunity to meet with friends and enjoy some of the country’s finest treats. German cakes like Käsekuchen (cheesecake with Quark), Schwarzwälderkirschtorte (Black Forest cherry cake) and Apfelkuchen (apple tart) are served with a warm cup of coffee or tea to stay up past the sugar rush. Be aware that while German cakes are usually heavy with cream and fruit and nuts, they’re rarely as rich as American sweets.
When planning a get-together, note that this is more than a hasty sit-down. Like brunch, Kaffee und Kuchen is a sprawling affair that can stretch out for hours. Cafés often provide a special combo deal, or – if you’re lucky – you’ll be invited into someone’s home.
Dinner/Supper (das Abendessen/Abendbrot)
We recently invited our new German neighbors over for dinner, and just before they arrived we realized we might be making a huge faux pas. We had prepared jambalaya, which is (1) a hot meal, (2) spicy, (3) full of seafood – all things that could be tricky with new German friends. The dish was a hit, but we should have been more careful knowing the German tradition of Abendbrot.
Abendbrot (“evening bread”) is the typical German supper. It is a light meal eaten usually between 18:00 and 19:00 and – like breakfast – consists of full grain bread and rolls, fine cheese, meats and sausages, accompanied by mustard and pickles. Sometimes Abendbrot may include hot soup, especially in winter. Delightful if done right, it wasn’t at its finest when I was in the hospital.
This doesn’t mean that Germans never have a full, hot evening meal, it just isn’t the norm. I was talking to my KiTa’s German chef, and she said that after cooking for a school all day, she and her girls always have a simple, light supper. The exception is when they go out for dinner.
Typical German Dishes
Foreign cuisine is becoming more popular in Germany, with an Italian pizzeria in even the smallest towns, plus Asian, Greek, and Indian food in most places, not to mention the omnipresent, popular Turkish Döner Kebab throughout the country. Mexican food in Germany remains problematic in most cases. But deutsche Küche (German food) still reigns supreme.
- Sauerbraten – A beef roast with a special marinade, usually served with Rotkohl (see photo below)
- Wurst – Unsurprisingly, Germany has a sausages for all occasions. Bratwurst is the most common, with Currywurst (served with spicy curry ketchup) the ideal Imbiss food. Also try regional versions of Blutwurst (blood sausage).
- Schnitzel – This Austrian dish has been adopted by the Germans. A cutlet of veal or pork is breaded and deliciously fried. Different versions include Jägerschnitzel with gravy and mushroom, Cordon-Bleu stuffed with ham and cheese, Rahmschnitzel with cream sauce and pepper, etc.
- Spätzle – Schwabian noodles usually served with cheese and bacon
- Maultaschen – Schwabian ravioli with minced meat or vegetables
- Kartoffelsalat mit Würstchen – German potato salad with sausage. This is a common lunch dish.
- Rippchen – Pork ribs
- Kartoffel – Potatoes are used in almost every meal, either pan-fried (Bratkartoffeln), boiled (Salzkartoffeln), French fried (Pommes frites), or mashed (Kartoffelpüree).
- Dumplings – Another common side dish is dumplings of either bread or potatoes. Names and method vary by region: Klöße in the north and Knödel in the south.
- Eintopf – A “one pot” stew made with everything in the fridge, like beans, peas, sausage or lentils.
- Seafood – Served in fine-dining restaurants and the ever-present Nordsee, seafood is particularly popular in the north. Everything from smoked fish, herring and salmon (Lachs) is popular.
Germans also have an obsession with seasonal foods. You can’t go through early summer without enjoying Spargel (white asparagus) in one form or another, or autumn without downing a glass (or bottle) of Federweißer (early fall unpasteurized wine).
Vegetarians (Vegetarier) and Vegans (Veganer)
In German-speaking Europe, as in North America and elsewhere, vegetarians and vegans follow a non-standard diet. They are served by specialty grocery stores and in restaurants with vegetarian and vegan items on the menu. That is also the German way, but it is a larger topic that we will cover in more detail later in a special section.
Typical German Drinks
Germans usually don’t drink tap water (Leitungswasser). The quality is fine, excellent actually, but they prefer bottled water and other Getränke (beverages) like Mineralwasser (mineral water, sparkling or plain), Saft (juice), coffee or beer. (You may be surprised to learn that Germans drink far more mineral water than beer.)
German Mealtime Expressions
Germans occasionally ask me what Americans say before a meal. “Bon appétit?” I offer weakly. Because saying “Guten Appetit” before a meal in German is mandatory. You can also say “zum Wohl” (good health) or “Mahlzeit” (mealtime), particularly at lunch.
Another mandatory German saying is the “Prost!” when you clink glasses. However, this is Germany, so it is not just a good-natured “Cheers!” There are rules. You must look everyone in the eyes as you clink glasses and not cross arms – unless you want seven years of bad sex. Germans take this very seriously.
Once you’ve finished the meal, you will often be asked how it tasted. The answer is usually a simple “lecker!” (delicious!). You also can simply say, “Das schmeckt” (it tastes [good]), or finish the sentence with a descriptive word like wunderbar.
Table Manners (Tischmanieren)
Dining customs in Germany are not so far off from eating in North America, but there are a few key differences.
Utensils, or Besteck. Use ‘em. Most German food is meant to be eaten with utensils and you should only resort to fingers when eating informally, like at a Grillparty. Even fries from an Imbiss come with tiny forks. It can be awkward watching a German struggle to eat a burger or burrito with knife and fork, but they feel similarly uncomfortable watching us pick everything up with our hands.
In North America, hands should be kept beneath the table except when in use. In Germany, hands on the table are fine with the fork in the left hand and knife in the right.
This German Way Expat How-To was written by Erin ‘Ebe’ Porter