OPINION: Why do Swedes wait until their food is completely cold before touching it?

OPINION: Why do Swedes wait until their food is completely cold before touching it?
Even at informal dinners in Sweden, guests often have to wait a while before they can start eating. Photo: Lina Roos/Imagebank Sweden
It makes sense that most items on a Swedish smörgåsbord are served cold, because people in Sweden wait so long to start eating that anything once hot is at best lukewarm anyway.

This problem is most acute at a formal dinner, where the maddening tradition is to hold some speeches before guests begin eating their meal. 

The food is laid out, either on the table in front of each guest or on plates, and the guests just look at it as the meat cools and the sauces congeal, feeling a growing sense of frustration at having their meal ruined by their over-garrulous hosts. 

The culprit is generally the välkomstskål (“welcome speech” or “welcome toast”) held by the hostess or host. Thankfully, this is traditionally shorter than an after-dinner speech would be in the UK or US. It is liable, however, to be followed up by another short speech by someone else, dragging out the proceedings. 

But for those who are naturally impatient, greedy, or simply hungry, the wait can be painful even at informal dinners with friends and extended family. 

According to Magdalena Ribbing, the late Swedish writer on etiquette and good manners, it is not polite to start eating until the hostess or host has given a signal. “Do not start eating until the signal has been given by a host or hostess,” she warns, adding that the most important thing is to eat without sound or spillage. 

The signal is normally simply var så god, literally “be so good”, the Swedish phrase for inviting people to eat or take something, but it could be something more informal like vänta inte! ät!, “don’t wait, eat!”.

Is the chicken cold? Then let’s begin. Photo: Tina Axelsson/Imagebank Sweden

When The Local approached our fellow foreigners on the Expats in Stockholm and Expats in Malmö Facebook pages, it quickly became evident that people from many different cultures find adapting to Swedish delayed eating a struggle. 

“It happens within my family, when it’s just us,” says Daniele Purrone, from Italy. “I want to eat the food as soon as it’s ready, and, above all, warm. My Swedish wife first wants to make sure that the candles are lit, all the ‘right’ stuff is in place, and so on. She wants it to be mysigt. I want it to be warm.”

Wael Al Ghazi, who lives in Malmö, is used to devouring grilled meat straight off the barbecue, but at an autumn dinner with Swedish friends, he was surprised by how much time there was between the removal of the meat from the flames and its arrival in his mouth. 

“We had it cold, swimming in meat juice,” he writes. “I don’t mind rare/medium done, but when cold! Our host was so particular in the setup and protocol that my kids started complaining, and when a kid is starving they don’t adhere to protocol and they’ll just speak their mind.” 

Adelaide Ross, an au pair from Texas, has also been struggling with the long waits at the table of the Swedish family she lives with.

“I always assumed waiting on the kids was the reason this happens, but YES, we NEVER eat hot food because it sits there forever until everyone is ready, and it drives me CRAZY!!!” she says. 

At the family table or with close friends, the wait is more about the Swedish concept of matro (mat-ro), or “food calm”, than etiquette.

Before you start eating, everyone should have settled down, the introductory chats and jokes should have subsided, the children should have stopped whatever they were doing. 

Food is served, and there is then normally a pause, perhaps for a minute or two, while everyone collects themselves further, before the meal begins. (Incidentally, matro should continue for as long as everyone is still eating, meaning conversation should be subdued, and noise limited). 

Dare you be the first to grab a tasty-looking cardamom roll? Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

For particularly greedy people, the difficulties with delayed eating in Sweden do not stop at meals, but extend to the eats on offer at drinks parties, or the biscuits and cake at coffee evenings. 

In many cultures, it is polite to show your self-restraint and considerateness by not eating the very last portion of a shared dish, as anyone who has witnessed the last piece of cake being endlessly sub-divided into smaller and smaller slices in their home country can attest. 

This also happens in Sweden. What is more unusual is that the rule works the other way around too. Guests at a party do not want to be seen to be the first to take a biscuit, piece of cake, or delicious battered shrimp parcel, leading to long stand-offs. 

If you have no reason to impress the other guests or your hosts, you can help everyone by just diving in and grabbing the most delicious-looking morsel on offer.  But if you want to appear like you have manners and a modicum of self-restraint, you should at least wait for five minutes or so before doing this.

Several of the foreigners surveyed by The Local said they had learned to adapt to Sweden’s tradition of delayed eating.

“We’ve learned to just eat before,” jokes Renee Garcia-Envall, from the US.

“I always have a snack or sandwich before going to any Swedish dinner,” confesses Érika Giusti. “Even when visiting my in laws, I eat nuts or something secretly, because I get hungry waaay before they seem to do.” 

Tune in to The Local’s new podcast, Sweden in Focus, on Saturday, as we discuss this article in more detail.


Member comments

  1. Weird. In the 8 years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve never experienced this. My Swedish family eats so fast that I’m often still eating my first serving, and they are already done their second and cleaning up the dishes! My husband also frequently burns his mouth because of his impatience to start eating.
    I live in a small farm village so maybe it’s different?

  2. In the 40 years I have lived in Sweden, the only time I have been served cold food by my Swedish family and friends is when is it supposed to be cold such as Midsommar or a Julbord.

  3. OMG I thought it was just me! Being British I want my toast really hot (and all my other meals too). Most of our arguments are about food getting cold while I wait and wait. (But looking on the bright side, if that’s our biggest argument, what a great relationship.)

    1. In 40 years married to a Swede the only difference I have with my wife is on toast, I like mine hot, she likes her cold, we both agree that other than a Smörgasbord food should and will be served hot. The immigrants here talking about cold food are talkinging a load of rubbish.

  4. Yes!

    I mean….yes!

    Thank you for this article. I thought it was just me who struggled with this. I have been in Sweden almost 10 years and this quirky custom still drives me crazy. Nothing worse than staring at an enticing-looking dish while you are ravenously hungry while idle chatter plays itself out that no one is really interested in anyway.

    I lived in Germany for a few years and love the way the host will command you to eat right away before the food cools, even while they are making a few last minute adjustments in the kitchen. Nothing worse than a good meal spoiled. Ahh yes….the Germans.

    And the same went for my own Italian-heritage family growing up back in the States. It is a mortal sin for a good braciole or big bowl of hand-made gnocci go cold. Plus, the synchronization of all the sundry gestures, formalities, and exchange of pre-eating pleasantries seem to come together and end at the precise moment of the food appearing on the table.

    If this agonizing pause before eating a meal is a display of sophistication in Sweden, I officially call myself a philistine.

    (As explained in the article, I also have resorted to eating a small meal before showing up at a dinner)

  5. Luckily for me, my in-laws kindly adapted their procedure and I’m glad to say we now get to eat when the food is still hot. Much better 🙂

  6. Try coming to a Filipino gathering. You won’t get hungry, stare at the food on the table for several minutes or eat a snack before coming over to dinner. You will enjoy the bountiful food, jokes, conversations and company all at the same time just like many of the Swedes we have met. “Kain na!”, that’s “Let’s eat!” in the Tagalog or Filipino language.

  7. I love these little insights into the “unwritten” Swedish culture, having visited numerous times and not known/understood what was going on it all makes sense. What a brilliant and funny article.

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