In Spanish, the phrase buen provecho is used throughout the Spanish speaking world. However, it is especially common in Mexico. In Mexico, it is our version of the French saying bon appetit, or the German mahlzeit—and in my small state of Morelos, we take it very seriously.
What does “buen provecho” mean in Spanish?
A loose translation of buen provecho would be something like “enjoy your meal”. However, a more literal translation would have to come from its root. “Provecho” stems from the same root as the verb aprovechar, which means “to take advantage of”. Though in this context, a better translation for aprovechar is “to make the most of”. Therefore a stricter translation of buen provecho is something along the lines of “make the most of your meal”.
There is another context when Mexicans can sometimes say “buen provecho”. If someone burps, then Mexicans can sometimes reply with buen provecho. In this context, it translates more as “may your food settle well”.
When do I say “buen provecho” in Mexico?
Similar to the Arabic bismillah, buen provecho can be said before a meal starts. However, it is most often said when someone is eating a meal and you are in their presence. If you happen to see someone eating their lunch in the breakroom when you are grabbing a glass of water, then that is the ideal time to say buen provecho. Or if you see someone eating an early lunch before they dart off to a meeting, then you would say buen provecho. Really, you say it any time that someone is eating in your presence and you are not.
Saying “buen provecho” in a restaurant in Mexico:
If you walk into a restaurant, then you say buen provecho to the people eating, and they will often reply with “gracias” or “igualmente” (which means “likewise”). It can be tedious to say buen provecho to every table eating a meal as you are being led through a long restaurant, so it is more often said when someone looks up from their table and makes eye contact with you. Take note though that this includes strangers and not just acquaintances or good friends.
Similarly, buen provecho is also said when you leave a restaurant after your meal, and you see tables that are just getting their meal. It is not necessary to say buen provecho to people that have not received their meal or are not yet in the act of eating.
How to say “buen provecho” in Mexico?
The truth is that Mexicans hardly ever say “buen provecho”. They more often just say the shortened version of it, “provecho”, which really already implies that you wish them well—especially in the context of wishing them well while they are eating. Often between friends, you will hear the diminutive suffix attached to the word, making the saying: provechito. It’s just a more informal way to say provecho.
You really only say the full phrase “buen provecho” if you are in formal circumstances, like a fancy dinner with extended, elderly family. Maybe at a wedding, or in generally the kind of scenario when you would use the formal usted form.
Why do Mexicans say “buen provecho”?
I grew up in Mexico off-and-on throughout my life and all my family is Mexican. However, when I moved back to Mexico to live there permanently five years ago, I adamantly refused to say provecho. I found it annoying that I would be interrupted at least a couple times a meal throughout Mexico—and far more in my state of Morelos, where it is carried as a badge of pride.
It slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t only a custom. Of course, part of the reason we say provecho is to display to others that we have good manners, and thus it was a mark of personal civility—not only about yourself, but about your upbringing.
Furthermore, it is also a genuine statement found among friends, family, and acquaintances. You very often do wish them a good meal, and that it might settle well. However, this was not the driving force for my having adopted saying provecho after a year of rejecting it.
No, I adopted saying provecho because it’s a way of maintaining a sense of community. You know where they don’t say provecho as often?—in impersonal places like Mexico City and Cancun. We say it in smaller areas to prove that we are a closer-knit community than the big city.
Now I say provecho as a knee-jerk reaction wherever I go.
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