Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What to Order at a High Stakes Meal

I recently had a conversation with my kids about table manners. It’s not the only table manners conversation we’ve had, but it’s the only one we’ve had in a while that wasn’t like, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO CHEW YOUR FOOD WITH YOUR MOUTH OPEN!”

I always try to explain why something I’m teaching them is important, and this was no exception. I was raised in family that rarely had anything other than casual dining experiences. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t taught manners, it just means we didn’t often go to restaurants that offered courses other than: appetizers, entrees, desserts. As someone who favors function over form, I always thought having multiple forks was stupid. I used the right forks when they were provided, but thought, “What a waste!” I suppose fork manufacturers beg to differ.

Here’s what we covered in the recent table manners discussion . . . A few reminders about the basics:

· Open up your napkin and put it in your lap before you touch any food/drink

· Elbows off the table

· Don’t talk with food in your mouth (and keep your mouth shut when chewing)

· Don’t reach across people to get the salt/pepper/etc. – ask them to pass it

· Keep your hands in your lap when not specifically using your utensils to cut, scoop, spear or lift food to your mouth

· How to hold your knife and fork when cutting something (the don’t stab your food rule)

I also talked to them about what sort of food to order at restaurants of any type, when they’re having a meal where they’re trying to make a good impression. This could be a job interview, a meal with their boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents or any other situation where they might be a little nervous and where the reason for the meal is to have a conversation, not to focus on the food.


In this situation, it’s best to avoid anything you need to pick up with your hands. Burgers, fries, sandwiches, burritos, gyros, wraps, etc. Why? Because that food is generally messier. It can drip sauces, chopped up bits of food, grease. Something can fall out the bottom of your gyro and land right on your shirt. Also, it makes your fingers/hands messy. It may be ok for you to lick the ketchup off your fingers at home, but it’s not ok to do it in front of a potential supervisor or mother-in-law.

It’s also good to avoid any food that needs construction or deconstruction. Steak, for example – you’re going to spend a lot of time cutting it. Not the worst thing in the world, but it takes your focus off of your conversation, and what if you have a steak that’s particularly hard to cut? You can either hack at it, or not eat it. The person you’re dining with might decide you need to talk to the waiter about it and have it sent back. This isn’t the sort of thing you want happening on a job interview. Even if it’s not YOU who is sending the food back, the person you’re dining with may take away an impression of you being high-maintenance, and even if not – it’s a distraction you don’t need.


The best sort of food to order in a situation like this is something that can easily be eaten with one hand and one utensil. Depending on the menu you’re ordering from, that might be a salad. It might be a pasta dish. It might be soup, but be careful about drips and DON’T SLURP YOUR SOUP. The point is, you want something easy, that isn’t going to be a distraction to you or the person you’re dining with.

Of course, where you’re dining will dictate a lot of this, and there are definitely circumstances that will contradict everything I’ve said. If your potential boss wants to take you to his favorite steakhouse, get to cutting. If it’s a high-profile job interview and you’re being evaluated even on the type of food you order, order something more sophisticated that shows how posh you are (just make sure you can wrangle eating it without making a fool of yourself). If your potential mother-in-law wants to take you to a gyro counter where you can’t even sit down, go with it.

Just try not to drip sauce down your shirt.

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