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Why do Danes eat lunch so early?

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.

Lunch habits
Many people in Denmark eat lunch between 12 and 12.30. Photo: Louis Hansel, Unsplash

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.

“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.

“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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How to fake being a local on the Copenhagen Metro

Copenhagen has a modern and efficient Metro system which has been significantly extended in recent years, meaning you are more likely to spend time on it if living in or visiting the capital.

How to fake being a local on the Copenhagen Metro

While the Metro has made it easier to get from one place to another, the etiquette might be different compared to other cities in which you might have regularly used an underground train.

Disclaimer: Obviously, we don’t actually recommend any of the antisocial tips listed below. This article has its tongue firmly in cheek and, for context, was written in consultation with a (Danish) recent Copenhagen resident who is currently in the final stages of pregnancy and has an axe to grind with a few of her fellow Metro passengers.

Don’t wait for other passengers to let you on or off 

You might be used to letting alighting passengers get off the train before stepping on board yourself. In some cities, the PA system on the platform reminds you to do this. Not so in Copenhagen.

Although lines on the platforms mark the areas behind which passengers are supposed to stand and wait before boarding, don’t expect them to care whether everyone else has got off before they step forward. If they block your path, they won’t move just because you need to get past before the doors close.

It’s best to look after number one in this situation, whether you’re in the process of getting on or off the train.

The elevator is for everyone 

If you are young, fit and healthy, have no scruples about nipping on to the elevator in front of pregnant or elderly passengers, people with strollers or those who have difficulty walking.

While signage in the Metro does suggest that the elevator should be given over to these groups, it is far from widely respected.

If you’re in the prime of your youth and don’t want to be seen on something as uncool as an escalator, but the elevator is already occupied, don’t hesitate to squeeze in. The pregnant and elderly folk will move up if you give them a light nudge.

Bring your bike

Bicycles are not permitted on the Metro during its busiest periods, between 7am-9am and 3:30pm-5:30pm. Outside of these windows, though, it’s fair game. Feel free to wheel your bike about with abandon and make sure you don’t look where you’re going.

If you bash into someone, simply pretend nothing happened.

Don’t talk to anyone


Get your mobile out. But don’t use it to make calls

In extension of the above point, phones should be used for anything except talking, especially if they can help you avoid real-life human contact.

There’s good mobile reception on most of the Copenhagen Metro, but while you’ll see carriages crammed with people streaming music or checking TikTok, it’s taboo to actually talk on the phone, at least not loudly.

Similarly, if you’ve caught the train with a real-life friend, keep your conversation levels down. If you’re with a date or long-term partner, save the public displays of affection for after you’ve got off.

Stand on the right, charge past on the left

Signs on the escalators will ask you to stå til højre (“stand on the right-hand side”). You might deduce that this also means “walk on the left”, but Copenhageners generally interpret it as “hustle past as quickly as you can and shoulder charge anyone who hasn’t seen you”.

The more polite patrons of the Metro might call out a gentle warning such as flyt dig! (“move!”) about half a nanosecond before they go flying by.

In either case, if you are standing, get as far over to that left-hand side as you can.

Make it easy for others to sit down

Some of the above points make the Metro sound like a bit of an inconsiderate place, but passengers also intuitively recognise the presence of others, and you’d be well advised to do the same.

It’s unusual to sit in the seat closest to the aisle if the window seat is unoccupied, or to put a bag down on a seat once the carriage starts to fill up. Passengers will edge into the window seat to make it easier for others to find a space around them.

No-one will actually dare to question your behaviour if you stick around in an inconvenient spot (remember the fear of talking and confrontation), but you might get a silent stare or two if you break this unwritten courtesy.

The flip side of this is that once the seats are taken, they’re taken. If you’re visibly pregnant and hoping some kind stranger will give up their spot, you could be in for an awkward wait.