“I’m from a large family of sharers. When one of my sisters married a non-sharer, she morphed into one herself. It was traumatic. It’s been 30 years, and we all still talk about it… Ironically, the fact that her husband was raised Catholic seemed less controversial to my Jewish family….”
Sharing meals with others can be a social rite that borders on primal. We naturally congregate around food — celebrating special occasions, conducting business (power lunches, anyone?), or simply gathering around the table with family to recap the day. Eating together — whether it’s two of you or 10 – is how we are wired.
Sharing actual food, however, is a whole other matter. A quick survey of diners reveals a near-polarized split between those who love communal eating and those who guard their plates for dear life. The former expect to collaborate on ordering and graze from as many dishes as the table can handle. The latter see it as a hygienically suspect invasion of personal space
One extreme view came from a self-proclaimed foodie, who volunteered, “I love sharing food. I once dumped a guy because he wouldn’t share.” When pressed about her rather extreme reaction to being denied a bite of her date’s entrée, she just shrugged and replied, “It’s a deal breaker…a true indicator of personality.”
When such birds of a feather flock together, how do they dine together? To find out, I pressed a crew of friends who explained their very clear-cut system for shared plates etiquette: “We have a group of five friends that go out for dinner two or three times a month. Each of us orders a different app and a main. When the dishes arrive, we take a few bites and pass the plates to the left. We all get to taste everything while leaving enough so that it makes its way back (with some left) to the original diner.”
While some people take it as their god given right to jab anything on their neighbors’ plates, the feeling is not always mutual. Here are some shared plates etiquette tips for navigating this potentially fraught terrain in good taste:
Exercise caution, and, when possible, choose your venue accordingly. If you are a sharer, don’t assume everyone else at the table will be as well. Ask before making plans that involve lots of plate passing. It’s generally safer to plan communal dinners with people you know well and who don’t mind your chopsticks invading their terrain. Don’t take your future mother-in-law for Ethiopian or Korean barbeque before you’re confident she won’t balk when you start pawing her dinner.
Be sensitive to those who don’t care to consume in the same manner as you. Don’t just leap in fork first and start picking away at your neighbor’s plate. Ask — and be sure to read body language. If, when asked to share, they pucker and deposit a forensics lab specimen-sized sliver of their chicken on your bread plate, chances are you are dining with a non-sharer. Don’t persist unless tormenting them is your objective.
Some dishes are off-limits. While certain foods practically require sharing: fries, dim sum, pizza, and nobody should eat a whole bowl of guacamole alone, some dishes can test even die hard sharers. Sharing spaghetti can make some diners a little squeamish [Ed. note: save for fans of Lady and the Tramp]. And, no matter how close you are, soup should be strictly off limits. It’s like sharing a toothbrush. Also, be mindful of dishes with dainty portions. By the time everyone at the table has had their go at your ravioli appetizer, you may only be left with a smear of sauce.
Don’t be a menu bully. Unless there is clear consensus that one person is in charge, it’s best to encourage everyone at the table take part in the ordering. That way, no one gets stuck with nothing they like. It also helps to be sensitive to dietary restrictions and preferences. If someone is a vegetarian, don’t order five pork dishes and a plate of string beans. That may get you (justifiably) stabbed with a chopstick. Finally, be conscious of cost. Mass ordering can lead to huge checks and unhappy surprises when the bill gets split – especially for light eaters.
When all else fails, try to fall back on good manners and kindness. Also, some final words of advice from an experienced mom, who warns, “Never try sharing a meal with a teenage boy. You’ll go home with an empty stomach.”
Stan Sagner, a former chef, is a New York City-based a food, culture, and travel writer and has been a restaurant critic for the New York Daily News. You can follow him on Twitter @ssagner and on Instagram @sagnereats.