In Norway, the Official Fourth Meal Is Breakfast at Night
The last time I visited my mother in Norway it was in May, when the sun sets at 10:30 p.m. I’d been sitting in her garden until late at night—the long evenings practically beg you to—so I didn’t realize how late it was when my mother called me inside: “Do you want some kveldsmat?”
There are four standard meals in Norway: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and kveldsmat. The word literally translates to “evening food.” The Norwegian kveldsmat is actually breakfast food, exactly the same as what’s eaten at the beginning of the day.
Kveldsmat is something extra. It’s a daily breakfast meal the way you only get to enjoy it on the weekend: slowly, and in good company. I don’t eat kveldsmat at home in London, as having dinner at 7:30 p.m. means there’s no room for any more meals. But as is the case in many Norwegian homes, my mother’s house serves dinner at 4 p.m. so I was ready for another meal by the time she called me inside for kveldsmat.
The table was set: There was a stack of sliced, dark, dense bread for open-faced sandwiches, and glasses for milk or juice. The spreads sat on a tray so they can easily be taken in and out of the fridge. There was the pink cod roe in a tube, the pickled herring in a jar, the cured elk sausage, and the mackerel in tomato sauce, the only thing I’d eat on bread for the entire year when I was four. There were the two Norwegian cheeses, yellow and brown, and two kinds of jam, strawberry and blackcurrant.
The author enjoying kveldsmat many years ago. Photo courtesy of Jessica Furseth
At breakfast, in the morning, you may grab a slice of bread and hurriedly put something on it before rushing out the door. But while the food is the same, this evening breakfast is a completely different story. I like to take the bread and cut it twice before picking out four different toppings, one for each segment. And once I’ve eaten those, I’ll grab another slice and choose four more things. You really get to experiment this way: the cod roe goes well under cheese, but a slice of cucumber really lifts it. If there’s sliced egg going, I’ll add some of that, too.
Kveldsmat is mostly a Nordic thing. The reason why Norway and its neighbor countries have this bonus meal at the end of the day is because dinner is traditionally eaten very early. Dinner in Norwegian is called “middag,” which means midday. While the meal has slid ever further into the afternoon over the past century, most people still eat relatively early by global standards, at 4 to 5 p.m. That means there’s room for a little supper at 8 to 9 p.m.
“Kveldsmat has a longstanding tradition in Norway,” says Ida Berg Hauge, CEO of the Norwegian Dairy Council. (All quotes in this article have been translated from the Norwegian.) “Half of the adult population will eat kveldsmat at least three times a week.” A survey commissioned by the council last year found that people would eat kveldsmat primarily because they’d be hungry again after dinner. A quarter also said they wanted to avoid getting hungry at night, and equally as many reported doing it out of habit. In any case, Norwegians are keen to keep up this tradition for the next generation: “75 percent of children eat kveldsmat almost every day, if not every day,” Hauge says.
An informal poll among Norwegian friends and family found the same patterns. Younger people in the cities were most likely to skip kveldsmat, whereas older people and families with kids were dedicated fans. Traditional breakfast foods like bread or crispbread with toppings and cereal with yogurt and the occasional bowl of rusks with soured milk were popular food choices.
But despite its many fans, kveldsmat may be an endangered meal. Now, nearly half of the Norwegian population has dinner after 5 p.m., whereas 20 years ago only 30 percent ate that late. The number of people who eat after 7 p.m. has also increased. “Clearly, when you push dinner until later, there will be less time for kveldsmat,” says Ole Berg, a senior adviser at the Norwegian Directorate of Health, a public organization that advises Norwegians on how they should eat.
Berg says that the Directorate of Health has no official position on kveldsmat. “But it’s important to eat regularly, preferably having four or five meals a day,” he says. When asked if having all those carbs so close to bedtime is problematic, he says it’s probably not an issue, as the total amount of food eaten over the course of a day is more important than the hour. The traditional kveldsmat foods tends to be good for you, Berg says. “Those who eat regular meals tend to eat more healthily, and they take smaller portions. They stay reasonably full between meals and thus avoid overeating.”
Both Berg and Hauge emphasized the social importance of kveldsmat, and how eating together in a relaxed and unhurried setting at the end of the day makes for a valuable bonding moment. “Kveldsmat is an important meal where you can take the time to talk to the people you’re eating with,” Hauge says. “Kveldsmat is the only time of day where we are under no pressure from the clock. We can slow right down and talk about what’s happened during the day.”
Most Norwegians have fond memories of eating kveldsmat as children. I remember eating my evening breakfast at the kitchen table, in a flannel nightdress, surveying the bread-topping options but eventually landing on mackerel in tomato sauce once again. These days I don’t eat kveldsmat more than a few times a year. Every time I do I’m charmed by the loveliness of it. It’s a little something extra. It’s a stolen moment to spend together when no one has anywhere else to be.