Curious about what traditional Day of the Dead food to prepare for your altar or celebration?
There are many different ways to celebrate Day of the Dead (aka Día de los muertos). But food is a central part of most día de los muertos festivities.
If you’re planning a Day of the Dead celebration and need some ideas of what foods to include, keep reading. I asked my community on Instagram for their favorite Day of the Dead foods. They sent in ideas from Mexico, the Southwestern United States, Guatemala, and more!
We came up with a list of 21 Day of the Dead foods and drinks for your celebration.
So let’s get started!
The role of food on Day of the Dead
There are two ways that food plays a role in Day of the Dead celebrations. First is that foods are commonly left on the altar as an offering for the spirits of departed loved ones. You can leave any food on the altar, but sweets are a popular choice.
Second, is the food eaten by the living on Day of the Dead. Of course, these can be the same foods!
Many cultures celebrate Day of the Dead with a gathering or party, in addition to setting up their altars. It’s not uncommon to take a picnic to the cemetery on Day of the Dead, for instance. In this case you might see common celebration foods like tamales, pozoles, and more.
Traditional Day of the Dead Food
While any food can be used as an offering, there are some traditional foods you will see on altars and celebrations.
I asked my community on Instagram to share with me their favorite foods for this holiday. Together with my own traditions and cultural experience, we came up with this list of traditional Day of the Dead foods:
Pan de muertos
Pan de muertos is by far the most iconic Day of the Dead food. It is a traditional pan dulce (sweet bread) flavored with anise and orange blossom. This treat is often seen as a symbol for Day of the Dead, with the iconic decoration on top representing bones..
You will start seeing pan de muertos for sale at panaderías starting in early October. I recommend buying a few extra (you will want to eat some yourself) a few days before your celebration!
Alegrías date back thousands of years. They are made from puffed amaranth, which had religious significance in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Traditionally, you may see amaranth used to make little skull shapes (similar to sugar skulls). This is extremely similar to alegrías, only alegrías typically are not shaped or decorated. For this reason, alegrías are also common for día de los muertos celebrations.
Mucbipollo is an Indigenous Mayan dish. The Maya have observed Hanal Pixán (similar to Día de los muertos) for thousands of years. Traditional Indigenous dishes like mucbipollo have been part of this celebration for just as long.
If you’re not familiar with Yucatecan food, think of mucbipollo as similar to tamales and pot pie.
Mucbipollo features corn dough stuffed with chicken, cabbage, and sauce. The whole dish is then wrapped in banana leaves and baked (traditionally underground).
Mexican hot chocolate
Chocolate has been a ceremonial food in Mexico for thousands of years. Today, that looks like serving Mexican hot chocolate at holidays and parties.
For the most authentic Mexican hot chocolate, use a molinillo to whip up the signature froth. Then serve it in a clay mug.
Atole is another ancient Mexican beverage. Atole has a lot of uses throughout Mexican history, including as a breakfast food.
But for Mexican-Americans, atole is most commonly thought of as a holiday food. This warm cornmeal drink can also have fruit or chocolate flavors (the latter is called champurrado).
Calabaza en tacha
Technically, Mexico and Central America are the original home of pumpkin! This means the first pumpkin desserts also come from Mexico and Central America!
One of the oldest desserts from Latin America is calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin. This is a stewed pumpkin dish served with a syrup made from brown sugar (or piloncillo).
Hot tip: I like to serve calabaza en tacha with oats or yogurt for breakfast. Thank me later!
This iconic Mexican stew is a common feature for Day of the Dead celebrations. While there are many regional variations of pozole, most forms of pozole feature hominy.
Pozole makes a great party food because guests can customize their own bowl with whatever toppings they choose (cabbage, cheese, lime, radishes, etc.).
Gorditas de nata
These small cakes kind of look like English muffins, and they make a great midday treat. The key ingredient is nata–the film that forms when you heat milk.
Nata gives these gorditas their slightly sweet flavor. Serve with café de olla!
Buñuelos de yuca
Many different Latin American countries have some type of buñuelo. But it was Nicaragua’s yuca buñuelos that made the list of Día de los muertos foods. These cassava fritters are served with a sweet, citrusy syrup.
You’ll find mole at many Mexican celebrations, including Día de los muertos festivities.
There are a ton of regional variations of mole. But all of them are rich complex sauces using Mexican vegetables, herbs, and spices. Serve over chicken or turkey.
Café de olla
Café de olla is coffee made in a pot, with spices and piloncillo (similar to brown sugar). This gives café de olla a signature smell and flavor perfect for holidays and special occasions. Serve it with pan de muertos for a simple holiday treat.
Café de olla also makes a great offering for the altar because of its enticing scent. Even more so if your loved ones were coffee lovers!
Another iconic pan dulce! Marranitos feature molasses and brown sugar flavors. These cookies are shaped like pigs!
You’ll find marranitos in Mexican panaderías, but they are especially popular around holidays (including Day of the Dead).
Fiambre is a traditional Guatemalan salad served for holidays, including Day of the Dead!
This salad features lots of different vegetables, cold cuts, and cheeses tossed with a vinegar-based dressing and chilled. Fiambre makes a beautiful display and truly makes a celebration feel special!
Jocotes en miel
Another Guatemalan food! Jocotes en miel features the fruit jocote, stewed in a sweet syrup.
This fruit dish is a common Guatemalan dessert for Day of the Dead. You may also see jocotes (called tejocotes in Mexico) in other holiday dishes like Christmas punch.
Arroz con leche
Arroz con leche is a common dessert on Day of the Dead. The strong cinnamon scent fits in nicely with other offerings like café de olla and pan de muertos.
Okay so this isn’t the most traditional. But marigolds are edible flowers and they are one of the most important symbols of Día de los muertos. It’s also common to leave an alcoholic beverage on the altar.
With that in mind, a lot of very creative Latinos have come up with some amazing marigold cocktail recipes recently.
Tamales are one of the most common celebration foods in Latin America. They have been an important food in Latin America for thousands of years. Because they take a lot of effort to prepare, you mostly see them on special occasions.
The wrapping on tamales makes them look like a gift for the altar, which makes them feel even more special.
No particular flavor or filling is more typical for Day of the Dead. Different regions may use different wrappings (corn husks or banana leaves).
Flan is a classic Latin American custard dessert. For an extra festive touch, try pumpkin flan. Pumpkin has been a popular flan flavor for a long time! It makes sense, since pumpkin originated in Mexico (see calabaza en tacha!).
Pulque is a drink made from fermented agave. Mexican people have used pulque for celebrations and ceremonies for thousands of years. Pulque had religious significance in many parts of pre-Hispanic Mexico (#).
It makes sense that pulque would be an important part of Día de los muertos, since Day of the Dead traces its origins to this era.
Jamoncillo de leche
Jamoncillo de leche is a type of milk candy, often decorated with nuts like pecans or almonds.
Small sweets and treats are popular additions to altars, including jamoncillo de leche. While you can make it at home, you’ll also find individually wrapped candies at most Latin American grocery stores.
Soft drinks, such as bottled soda, are another popular offering at the altar. They are good choices for offerings because they are easy to obtain and won’t make a mess if you leave them overnight.
Choose your loved one’s favorite flavor and add it to the altar.
Your loved ones’ favorite foods
While there are many traditional foods you can choose from, don’t forget the meaning of the holiday. The most important part of the day is remembering and honoring our loved ones who have passed.
Be sure to add a personal touch to your altar specific to the loved ones you wish to honor. While this can be as simple as a picture, it’s also very common to add favorite foods, drinks, or other small tokens.
Did your grandpa love a particular type of candy? Did your tía teach you her secret cookie recipe? Put it on the altar!
Adding food to your altar
You can add any of the foods form this post to your altar (or ofrenda). If you are leaving the foods overnight, pan dulce, candies, and nuts and seeds work well.
Don’t forget to personalize the altar. You don’t have to include every food listed. Just a few that make sense and hold special meaning for your celebration. My altar always includes circus peanuts, for example!
Day of the Dead is a beautiful way to honor your ancestors, and food plays a big part in the holiday!
Use these food ideas to feed your ancestors’ spirits (and yourself!) this Day of the Dead. You can add them to your altar or serve them at your celebration.
As a Latina dietitian, I know how important food is for both our physical and emotional well-being. That’s why I created a community celebrating nourishing Latin American foods! Join my email list for a free 5-day Latino meal planner. Sign up below.