As a social custom, dating involves eating. No way around it. Sure you can work in another activity, like a movie or sporting event, but there will usually be a meal involved. Having accepted breaking bread together as part of the dating ritual, particularly on the first few dates where you and your prospective paramour are getting to know each other, what do you order?
Research reveals you will be judged differently if you order a salad or a Sloppy Joe. Apparently, people reach conclusions about your personality, habits, characteristics, and even morals, based on what you eat.
First Bites and First Impressions
On a first date, some people refuse to be governed by stereotype and order anything they want. Research, however, provides incentive for others to strategize their selection. Some food-related stereotypes, however, like an expensive steak knife, can be a double-edged sword.
For example, in modern society, an increasing number of people have gone gluten free. Whether for health reasons or nutritional preference, asking a server about gluten free options if they are not clearly marked on a menu does not raise eyebrows. But it does raise stereotypical ratings about personality, disposition, and more.
Maya Aloni in an article aptly entitled “Too Picky for My Taste?” (2019) explored how being gluten free impacts romantic first impressions.[i] Using an online dating paradigm, she found that gluten free individuals were perceived as being “high-maintenance, picky, demanding, complaining and judgmental, yet healthy, self-disciplined, understanding and energetic.”
Fortunately, however, the impact on perceived romantic attraction to gluten free individuals was zero. Although Aloni´s first study demonstrated that some participants expressed hesitation about dating someone who was gluten free, the second study found no impact on romantic interest.
One of the topics addressed in Aloni´s research was consumption stereotypes, which are both positive and negative. She notes, for example, that research reveals that people with low-fat diets are judged as “more physically attractive, healthy, fit, conscientious, intelligent and moral,” although also they are also viewed as pickier self-centered, less fun, less happy, serious, boring, and high-strung.
What about individuals who meticulously avoid certain foods in pursuit of nutritional health? Aloni notes that people consuming what is referred to as a “clean eating” diet—a diet without any “impure” foods such as gluten and dairy, are also evaluated more negatively as people not following such a diet.
Date Foods and Non-Date Foods
Now let´s talk specifics. When you are handed the menu on a date, what should you order?
As a practical matter, you will already know because you will have Googled the menu beforehand and made a decision. But for future reference (and to select an appropriate restaurant to begin with) here are some research-based suggestions.
Dana E. Amiraian and Jeffery Sobal in a piece entitled “Dating and eating” (2009)[ii] surveyed university students to explore best and worst dating foods. Many of their findings will resonate with daters of all ages.
The researchers note that dating involves skills to facilitate positive impression management. Not surprisingly, subjects gave the green light to foods that were neat and easy to eat, while recognizing foods that were pungent and that caused bad breath as dating no-no´s.
The authors also note that food choices on dates have more than one purpose. They are not only important for health reasons, but also because they can set the stage for eating patterns in long term relationships, such as marriage.
What dish was deemed most appropriate for a date overall? Pasta. The dating food that received the least amount of positive votes: sandwiches.
Among the listed non-dating foods, garlic topped the list, which also included onions, as well as a variety of other selections, from messy meals like Sloppy Joes, ribs, and wings, to the category of “Fast Food”—which was deemed inappropriate by more men than women. Interestingly, pasta made this do-not-order list also, voted against by far more women than men.
We might argue that not all pasta dishes are alike: spaghetti is certainly a more challenging first date food than lasagna or ravioli, particularly depending on the length of the noodles. But perhaps it is served in higher end restaurants than other dishes. This is arguably consistent to an extent with the rationale research subjects gave for the choices: topping the list was “not messy,” followed by “classy/ fancy/ expensive.”
First Bites Matter
So if you want to play it safe on a first date, perhaps the general rule is ordering a non-pungent food that can be neatly consumed with utensils instead of your hands. Avoiding the unnecessary complication and distraction of hard to eat menu items will leave more time and energy to focus on great conversation, and get a relationship off to a great start.
[i]Maya Aloni, “Too Picky for My Taste? The Effect of the Gluten-Free Dietary Restriction on Impressions of Romantic Partners,” Appetite, Vol. 132, 2019, pp. 55–66.
[ii]Dana E. Amiraian and Jeffery Sobal, “Dating and eating. Beliefs about dating foods among university students,” Appetite, Vol. 53(2), 2009, p. 226-232.