Food and Judgment

Christmas Eve dinner at my brother's house. He cooked the entire meal. December 2012.

I’d called to see how a friend’s date had gone the night before. He said he’d liked her, but didn’t plan to ask her out again. “She doesn’t understand the value of things,” he said.

What happened? What did she do?

Turns out, she ate the preprandial bread. When her steak arrived, she ate the side of rice, picked at the green beans, and ate two or three bites of steak. She said it tasted amazing, but she felt stuffed.

He didn’t care that she’d ordered an expensive steak. He cared that she’d eaten all the cheap fillers and hadn’t consumed the one item of actual value.

“What does that say about her judgment?” he asked.

I argued that at the moment she ordered, the meal was a sunk cost; it didn’t matter what parts of it she ate. Also, I reasoned that he put too much weight on a trifle. Most people don’t think about food that way, I said. (Nonetheless, he’s forever changed the way I approach a dinner plate.)

Since then, I’ve had executives tell me they conduct lunch interviews with promising candidates for insight into the prospects’ work habits and abilities. They claim to learn a lot by how interviewees comport themselves at table, how they treat service staff, and what they order and how they eat it.

It’s a different take on the old adage: You are what you eat.

Curious, isn’t it? Makes sense that we assume certain characteristics from what a person chooses to wear—people choose clothing to make personal branding statements. Through clothing, we identify with and appeal to particular groups.

But food? I can see choice of restaurant as personal branding, but individual dishes seem to rarely function as self-definitive.

However, if people make eating decisions with less of a personal-branding intention than they do other choices, then food habits could indeed be more valid for making character judgments.

What do you think? Can you tell a lot about a person by her eating habits?