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I have noticed that most people in the US serve the salad course before the main dinner course. However, my Italian relatives and my boyfriend's Italian relatives serve the salad course after the main dinner course. (I am assuming it is an Italian or European difference.)

What are the benefits to serving the salad dish either before or after the main course. Does it aid in digestion? Palate cleansing?

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Do you have some reason to believe the variation is anything more than cultural preference and history without any fundmantal reason other than accident of history? –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 2 '13 at 11:49
I have no idea, which is why I'm asking. –  lemontwist Jan 2 '13 at 11:52
Phrasing of "pros/cons" implies the expectation of a difference based on some objective metric, rather than just "this is way we do things". Kind of like driving on the left or the right side of the road. They are equally effective (as long as everyone in the region agrees), and the world-wide variations are a contingent accident of history. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 2 '13 at 11:54

8 Answers 8

For a fairly typical thread on this, see: http://www.thekitchn.com/cultural-differences-salad-bef-65008

The so-called reasons I see listed here are consistent with what I found in several different internet discussions of the issue, none of which are scientificially or academically credible:

  • Restaurants serve salad first because it is easiest to get out on the table
  • At home, eat the entrees first while they are hot
  • Eat salad last so that the roughage helps digestion
  • Eat salad last so that the stomach acids are not diluted for the entree

Note that the last two are kind of non-sensical. They sound great as folk science, but in the course of a single meal, it will all end up together in the stomach, as the digestive process is not so fast that the courses end up moving through the system in sequence like cars in a railroad train in sequence over the track.

Then again, some like to serve it with the main part of the meal.

I am sure this is just a matter of cultural expectation.

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As a counter to the first claim -- it holds up in general, but when you have more composed salads they're going to be slower to get out than most 'slow food' dishes that would've been prepared in advance (stews, chili, osso buco, etc.) I've been to a lot of restaurants where the salads get bogged down as they only have one person assembling salads with multiple others for hot appetizers & main courses. –  Joe Jan 2 '13 at 20:29

It's interesting that the two main choices you've asked about are before or after the main entrée course. In my experience in England and in continental Europe (Spain, Italy, France etc.) the salad is served as a side dish alongside the main or entrée course and is intended to be eaten alongside this course sometimes in place of some form of vegetable dish.

The only time I've come across a salad being served before the main course is when it's intended as a starter to the main course, in which case you probably wouldn't then have a salad as a side dish.

I've never come across a salad being served after the main course, except as a fruit salad!

Perhaps it's a cultural difference between North America and Europe but if I was ever served a salad after the main or entrée course I'd be asking whoever served it to me, why and I would find it most unusual.

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Many consider salad a secondary food in the hierarchy. You can eat more meat if you skip the salad, or eat it last.

If you eat salad first (without 100% fat drizzled salad dressing) you fill your stomach with fewer calories by volume. Your total caloric intake could possibly be reduced by eating salad first.

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Living in Spain I've always seen serving salad first, and then the main(s) course(s). And I don't remember having seen it been done other way in Italy nor by Italians.

The reason might be simple: try to eat a whole dish of salad. Can you eat a steak after that?

Then do the opposite experiment: eat a whole dish with a large steak. Can you eat a bit of salad after that?

The only reason I can find to eat a main dish first is when timing of preparation or/and temperature of serving are crucial (maybe as with pasta al dente or fried eggs & French fries)

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Whenever I have dined at someones home in France we always had salad at the end of the meal. Their reasons were that salad went well with the cheese that was also served at the end of the meal.

If your salad has a standard vinaigrette then it makes sense to have it at the end of the meal because the vinegar acts as a digestif.

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Similar to some of the debunked points in SAJ14SAJ's answer, the idea of a digestive aid needing to be eaten at the end of a meal for maximum potency is scientifically suspect; in those cases where order actually matters, the digestive aid is invariably taken at the beginning of the meal (think Lactaid, or Beano). The cheese pairing is a much more credible explanation! –  Aaronut Aug 3 '13 at 1:34

A serious con of serving it separately is that if the food is spicy, or hot, you can't use the salad to wash off the excess of heat - you must depend on drinks (...and if the drink is hot too?)

Other than that, you take the choice away from your guest: they may choose to eat the salad first or last, or mix it with the main course, or spread eating it evenly with the main course - if you serve it after only later after the main course, you took this option away.

OTOH, salad is often readily available at restaurants where food is prepared as you wait. In this case I find early arrival of the salad welcome if I'm hungry - simply, less waiting for any food.

So, summarizing:

  • early salad: only advantages; guest can delay eating it. Just don't take it away as you bring the main dish.
  • same time: okay, unless you make hungry guests wait and provide no snacks of any kind.
  • late salad: bad. Really no good reason to serve it that way. If the guest wants to eat the salad last, they can just leave it for later, it won't get cold. If they burned their mouth on hot main dish, they won't be too happy about "better late than never". If they like mixing tastes, you took that choice away.
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I don't know if you're still watching this question, so I'll be brief. A Salad course after the main meal tends to only be during full course meals - I.e. four or more courses. It is meant to be a light green salad after a large roast dinner (usually) to cleanse the palate before dessert, which may include both a sweet dessert (cake, torte, etc) and cheese (with fresh fruit and biscuits/crackers).

I'm not aware of any benefits to having a salad before or after a meal other than this - and I've not seen it outside of a formal dinner.

Also, you would not see it outside of Europe. I know it as a traditional a British thing.

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It all depends on you!! I know that if I eat salad after my meal i tend to get bloated and gassy, however if i eat it before a meal i feel more energetic and satiafied afterwards

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