Last updated on November 18th, 2023
Have you ever heard someone say that Italians don’t snack between meals? Is this true or is it a myth? Could this possibly be the secret to their good figures and healthy lifestyles?
Well after eating like an Italian for over 12 years now I think I have a pretty clear idea and I can tell you it’s not what I thought when I first came here in 2009. A lot has changed since the mass production of foods has also ramped up in Italy.
Whether you are just looking to take a page out of the Italians handbook or you are planning an upcoming trip and want to really live the Italian way, this is the article for you that will answer all your questions about snack time in Italy.
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What Exactly is Merenda?
Merenda is a moderate mid-afternoon snack, typically eaten between 4pm and 6pm in Italy, mostly by children but also by adults in more recent times.
Historically, merenda was an afternoon snack for children to keep their flaring hunger-anger at bay between lunch and supper. Remember, Italians tend to eat fairly late, between 8pm and 9 pm so it’s a long time for kids to wait between meals.
When Italians did a lot more physical labor in the past, merenda was a quick piece of bread and cheese or cured meat as a way to get them to the end of their working day. Today, lots of blue collar workers still have snacks as they are doing lots of manual labor.
As the labor market changed over time and adults started working much less physically and started being more sedentary, they changed to going straight into the aperitivo hour, skipping merenda completely, starting around 7pm, consisting of a drink with a bite or two or nuts, focaccia, olives, cut veggies or other small nibbles to keep your hunger tapered down until dinner is ready.
My Italian mother in law tells the story of how when she was a little girl she was given white bread sprinkled with sugar and a bit of red wine. Parents don’t serve this to their kids today but it’s pretty amazing to think that was totally normal for kids 65 years ago!
Now for those of you readers who are asking, “is not eating between meals the true secret to a healthy weight and lifestyle?” I am no doctor nor nutritionist but I can say that when you don’t eat between meals, you tend to skip a lot of extra junk food and caloric drinks that you might end up eating. Italians really just don’t eat a lot of that stuff, unlike Americans, who eat a lot of it between meals. So you don’t need to cut your snack to be Italian, just cut the junk food and stick to a piece of fruit!
What Merenda Isn’t
What merenda isn’t is a mid-morning snack. A mid morning snack served to children at school or ordered at a bar around 10 am is called una colazione or una seconda colazione.
Merenda is, generally speaking, made from real food. What I mean by this is that it’s usually not a pre-packaged snack coming from a grocery store or chips and other junk food. This is slowly but surely changing and I do see more and more kids eating schifezze (junk food) after school but as a whole, Italians still feed their kids real food in the afternoon, salty or sweet. Even if it is a sweet, it’s either made at home or made by a local bakery, not pre-packaged to sit on a shelf for a year.
How to Pronounce Merenda
Merenda means “something to deserve” and is pronounced mehr-ehn-DAH in Italian.
When Do Italians Have Merenda?
Today, merenda is still generally reserved for children but from time to time adults do indulge in a piece of fruit or small sweet treat such as a gelato in the late afternoon.
Children typically have merenda after school, at a gelateria, outside a forno (bakery) across from school, at home or at the park. You will see ice cream shops and bakeries start to fill up around 4 pm, right before school lets out as parents either stop in beforehand to pick something up or bring their kids after school pick up.
In fact, bakeries freshly bake bomboloni (sugar coated donuts) at 4 pm so the school children have a warm treat to look forward to after a hard days work. You can smell them in the air!
During the summer months when most Italians get out of town and head to the beach, they will have their merenda beach-side with plenty of fresh fruit and local specialties from the bakeries such as focaccia, pizza, or pinsa.
As I mentioned early, most Italian parent’s prepare real food for their kids to eat for afternoon snacks. I am a big fan of sandwiches (which kind of seems like a lot but kids need a ton of energy to grow, do sports and sit in school all day and I can promise you they still complain they are hungry an hour later!) and fruit. We eat a ton of fruit in our house since vegetables aren’t always the most popular item on the dinner plate.
My kids, faithful to their Italian roots, love a nice, fresh piece of schiacciata (focaccia as we call it in Florence) after school. They like it with olives and sometimes I spring for hot dogs on them (not very Italian, mind you).
We also enjoy sweets after school such as toast with bread or cookies and milk, similarly to American children. I always am sure there is fruit offered when we have sweets. Italians love Nutella and so do my kids. I honestly try to stay away from it for merenda but a Nutella sandwich is one of the most popular options for Italian kids! Homemade ciambella (a simple tea cake) or crostata (an Italian short-crust pie filled with jam) are other sweet options that a lot of Italian mothers have on hand for their kids after school (like this lemon ricotta cake or this chocolate ricotta cake).
Here are some of my favorite easy to make afternoon snacks:
- panino al prosciutto – sandwich with prosciutto (not grilled)
- pizza a taglio – a slice of pizza
- schiacciata – focaccia
- seasonal fruit – always offered
- biscotti – cookies preferably homemade but we do buy them as well
- toasted bread with either oil, jam, slices of tomato or Nutella
- gelato – every so often we go out for gelato after school – lots of good dairy and my kids also love the fruit flavors
You may want to check out our Glossary of Italian Cooking Terms.
Italian Merenda FAQ
Sure, but it’s not as common. They typically will have fruit. you will never see an Italian adult chowing down on a slice of pizza at 4:30 (unless they do a lot of manual labor!).
Yes, you can. You can find individual portions of cookies, pastries and granola bars in the cookie aisle. Also, Kinder is huge in Italy and they make several pre-made snacks that you can buy either in the same section or by the yogurt, if they contain dairy.