Sunday, September 9, 2012

Food culture differences (Finland versus US)

A new American girl just started at my daughter's international school in Espoo.  Recently at school, my daughter was the last one in the cafeteria with the exception of the new girl.  Why had they stayed behind when everyone else was done eating and had left?  They both had trouble eating their food plates and when the teachers were not looking, they dumped their food in the garbage.  :) It seems that they are missing their mac n cheese, french fries, burritos and chicken nuggets.  Yup, the food staples of the American school child are definitely not found in Finland.  In Finland school cafeterias feature items that you might even find in an adult buffet.  Depending on the day, you might find salmon, potatoes, meatballs, stew and even fish soup.  It is "real food", not just the preservative laden food that you would find in US school cafeterias.  My wife and I think that this would be a good shift for her in order to adopt better habits, but she is really slow to change.  It is hard to break these habits and she still yearns for Kraft Macaroni and cheese any chance she gets.  There seems to be some kind of market for "American" food here in Finland, because there is a specialty shop that sells American goods and there is an "American" shelf at the local K market food chain.  I personally tend to stay away from that stuff, because I just don't really feel like spending 5 + euros for some Peanut Butter or Jello pudding.  I can live without my American items for now.  :)

Surprisingly enough there is also a noticeable difference in lunch culture of Finland versus what I was used to in the States.  Finland tends to favor large, heavy lunches and many of them tend to be "all you can eat" buffet style places.  Many of these buffets feature heavy meat stews, fish, potatoes, bread and butter, heavy pasta salads, etc.  It is pretty rare to just find basic food, a light sandwich or burrito kind of place.  Also, not sure if it is just my office or not, but almost everyone tends to go out for sit down lunches, definitely not an "eat at your desk" culture. In my previous job in California, I think only about 30% of the people went out for lunch.  The rest either grabbed something to go or brought their own lunches from home to eat at work.  I think part of this has to do with America's "rat race", go go go work culture, where the Finns actually take time to go to lunch.  I have already mentioned in earlier blog articles, about the differences in food varieties in Helsinki versus San Francisco so I will not go into too much detail here.  Finland is however making some strides in establishing more ethnic varieties of food as more as more immigrants have been coming here. See my earlier post "Work life in downtown Helsinki".

Finnish staples


  1. i laughed at how your daughter and the other girl dumped their food in the trash. i honestly am quite often tempted to do the same here. i love the seafood in norway but most all else leaves much to be desired.

    she will definitely get used to it. i used to crave things like macaroni and cheese, but nowadays i just refuse to pay premium prices on something that is only 99 cents in the states. :)

  2. Oh, poor kids, I hope they will take the best of both worlds in the end :)

    The lunch and dinner culture. I have thought about it a lot. Here lunch is only after 1 o'clock and most people have a sandwich type of thing. Whereas in Finland it's from 11.30-> and has, like you said, a proper meal, what they call Dinner here. When I brought a few of my friends over they thought it strange to have dinner around lunch time, or 'two dinners'.Although traditionally the evening meal in Finland is a bit lighter, or else we eat a lot less of it in both lunch and dinnertime Something that my parents, grandparents and everyone I know in Finland always said is 'not real food'. But yes, the lunch they have is not 'a meal'. I still cannot get myself to have bread for a meal. It feels strange. I am sure you have notice we tend to have bread with meals. Then again here people are more european in the way that they have an absolutely massive dinner around 8 at night. Something we don't do in Finland, unless it's a special occasion.

    I think the roots of our culture have to come from the cold. We have need a good sturdy lunch around noon too kepp ourselves warm and then again something warm around five after a day of hard work in the unforgiving nature. To be fair, nowadays most adults working in offices, do not need two warm meals a day, but I do think it is absolutely brilliant for children. They do tend to eat a lot less at a time, their little bellies cannot hold enough, and having two proper meals, with good nutrients keeps them going really well. In fact, some researchers argue that one of the reasons our education system is so world renowned is the free, wonderful school food, combined with the proper breaks (where at least we were almost always forced to go out) after each 45 minutes.

    1. Sorry a few of the sentences got a bit meddled up there. What I meant to say was that the lunch they have here is not 'a meal', it's the sandwich or subway type of thing. <-- Something that my parents, grandparents and everyone I know in Finland always said is 'not real food'.

  3. One of my friends back home went to CostCo and bought a 15-pack of Kraft Mac&Cheese, then took the cheese packets out and threw the rest away. 15 cheese packets took up very little room in my suitcase, I can buy pasta here, and then you just add milk and butter. Pretty easy and inexpensive way to occasionally enjoy some American comfort food. :)
    (But yeah, totally agree with you - I stay well away from the American aisle in the grocery stores here. As long as you divorce yourself from how something is *supposed* to taste and simply ask yourself, "Is this good?", you can live with, and even enjoy, a lot of local products.)

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone! I really appreciate reading them. @ Katri - I am going a little bit of weight since I moved here because I am eating a full lunch and full dinner every night. :) Not used to the light snack for dinner thing. @ "Embracelifebeinspired", thanks for the great idea! When I return home this November I am going to get those Costco cheese packets to give my children their American comfort food fix. :)

  5. Maybe that is why there are so many more obese kids in the US than in Finland?

  6. Hi Telefinn,

    That is a sweeping generalization that you are making. Sure, there may be more obese children in the US than Finland, but on what scale are we comparing? The United States has over 300 million people to Finland's 5 million. Every state has its own issues and differences in demographics, etc. Where I grew up in California, people are generally health conscious for the most part, but we definitely still love our American comfort food from time to time. What I think is funny is that Finland has an "American aisle" in the K Markets where they sell overpriced American food. I wonder why they want that type of food corrupting their "healthy" nation? :)

  7. Funny thing: I tasted peanut butter for the first time in Finland :D I'm from Russia, and although it's possible to find peanut butter in Moscow, I never got to try it there, but when I moved here I did. And as you said, there's a lot of ethnic food here, so my first falafel, sushi, miso, pakora etc. happened in Finland. Go figure.

  8. To be fair to your daughter, unless the school food has significantly improved, they still offer laitoskeittiö food, which can range from mediocre to excellent salads and from poor to good other parts of the meal. The amount of money they spend on lunch per child is amazingly low.

    WRT the proper lunches, look no further than the unions. 30-60 minute lunch breaks are the common standard. So are 2 coffee breaks. Basically the collective bargains are by law applied to non-union workers as well. Non-union members of course miss out on legal services, etc.