Food: Serving it, Ordering it, and Situational Etiquette

Article by Mike Finkelstein

Whenever two or more geeks come together to partake in media consumption (be it movies, TV, video games, or gaming sessions, just to name a few), a question of a second kind of consumption comes up: that of the edible persuasion. With smaller groups, this can be decided easily, but the larger the group, the longer the decision making process can take, and the more questions of etiquette spring up from the situation.

Here-in, we will attempt to lay out the steps one should take in establishing where, what, and how food should be decided upon, ordered/served, and who should take the responsibility for paying for the meal.

Genre and the Picky Eater

One problem many groups will run into, early on, is that many people like many different kinds of food, and, on any given day, will lean towards one kind of meal or another -- and the choices made aren't always the same from day to day.

When trying to decide what kind of food to have at the proposed social gathering, it's best to stick with commonly accepted genres of food: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Fast Food. These four will encompass most of the discussion of food, whether eating in or ordering take-out.

Pizza: The Simplest Solution

When Italian is suggested, what that really means is pizza -- pizza is the most common solution to the food debate. Everyone knows what to expect from pizza, and even if two restaurants make the pizzas differently, the commonalities among the dish will carry through. Pizza is pizza. If they change it too much, it's no longer pizza (it's this weird pizza-like object that, while having the common ingredients, no longer bears enough resemblance to carry the name "pizza" without modification -- such food normally goes by names like "pizza sub" or "stromboli").

However, when it comes time to choose toppings, groups tend to find themselves in tougher situations. Some people like vegetables, others want all meat (piled on in such quantity that even the cleanest veins will need to be snaked out). While a seemingly simple solution would be to order a few pizzas with toppings to please everyone, everyone then has to agree upon a number of pizzas to cost incurred ratio (too many pizzas tends to make the price too high).

Pizza is used often enough because it's easy to order, and the simplicity of the solution (the common frame of reference) allows for quick thinking on the matter. Just make sure to decide quick, otherwise the toppings argument can go on much longer than is necessary.

Chinese: More Choices

Chinese is a popular winner among many groups. Its strength lies in the fact that the dishes are cheaper than pizza (commonly six to eight dollars for a single Chinese dish in comparison to upwards of fifteen dollars or more). Cheaper dishes mean that more can be ordered for a low price, so everyone can get exactly what they want.

However, the downside of Chinese food is that no two restaurants make the food the same way -- even a single dish can vary widely from shop to shop (does it have carrots? is the brown sauce sweet or salty? is there MSG?). Additionally, not everyone likes Chinese (and certainly not in the same, staggering numbers than everyone likes pizza).

Man cannot live on pizza alone, though, so Chinese is a popular backup choice, especially for groups where getting together is common occurrence.

Mexican: The Less Traveled Road

Mexican presents its own, unique solutions and problems in the food debate. Mexican's strength is that most of the items are made with the same ingredients (ground beef in a hard shell, ground beef in a soft shell, ground beef served on hard chips, ground beef served in a hard shell with a soft shell wrapped around...). When you think of Mexican food, it's easy to know what you're going to get. It becomes just a matter of choosing how you want the ingredients combined, and in what ratios.

The downside of Mexican is that, on longer time-lines (more than two hours), groups tend to eat again (take snacking into account when planning your groups sessions). Mexican has a tendency to degrade quickly with the passing of time. A common rule is to accept that Mexican has a freshness half-life of about 30 minutes -- and once it goes soggy, it will never be properly resuscitated.

That stated, if a group has eaten pizza and Chinese recently enough, Mexican may provide a unique, tasty solution.

Fast Food: Quick and Dirty

Of course, if your group has a number of differing opinions, and no one can decide anything, a simple solution is to get Fast Food. The upside is that there are many different choices when it comes to Fast Food establishments -- and stores are usually located within close proximity.

The downside is that you have to drive to pick up Fast Food, as nearly all places will not deliver. Then you have to arrange transport, or find one person willing to go and pick up food for everyone else.

Delivery, Carry Out, or Eat In

Having established the consumable genre, the next step is to decide how the food is going to be prepared. Sometimes this decision is easy (everyone wants Chinese, and there's an excellent place right down the road that everyone likes, and it delivers). Other times, however, a monkey wrench, or eight, is thrown into the works, requiring another set of decisions to be made.

Delivery: Less Work, More Fun

Plainly, Delivery is the easiest solution -- all that is required is someone willing to talk on the phone to place the order (not always easy to find), and for the money to be gathered for the food. Bear in mind, though, that Delivery is inherently more expensive if you tip -- and you should tip; it's rude not to. Very rude.

Of course, Delivery does take longer than carry out; you have to wait for the food to be made, and then you have to wait for the delivery person to show up. Depending on where the restaurant is in relation to your agreed upon location for social gathering, it could be faster to just drive over to the restaurant and pick it up.

This is termed the "Carry Out Instant Gratification Paradigm."

Carry Out: Who Gets Stuck Doing the Dirty Work?

Carry Out can be a much faster solution than Delivery. Additionally, if the order is wrong, you're right at the restaurant -- having the problem solved is faster, and more likely to happen (too often, with Delivery, the person with the wrong order will simply go "eh, screw it, I'm hungry now").

There aren't a lot of downsides to this solution, if you're able to find someone willing to pick the food up -- or if everyone is willing to go as a group. Of course, if everyone is going, you may just decide to Eat Out -- i.e., have the food served at the restaurant. This, too, is an acceptable solution, if everyone is willing to delay whatever other social activities were planned for the evening.

If one person is elected to be the Carry Out Official, remember this point of social etiquette: because they are driving over to pick up the food, they shouldn't have to pay as much for their portion as everyone else. This is their "tip" for being the wheel man (although, as touched upon later in this article, there are other economic options available).

Eating In

This can be the most equitable solution for the cash-strapped of the group. Instead of getting food, food is made. Generally speaking, making food is cheaper than ordering it, and, if someone is a good cook, it can be much better quality as well.

That is, of course, an important caveat: the person cooking needs to actually be a good cook. As an example, one social situation I am privy to involves each member in the group serving a dish, in turn, at the regular social gathering (so one person would cook one night, the next person the next night, etc.). An individual stated that he was going to make a regional delicacy from where he grew up. He then proceeded to make macaroni (without cheese or any other sauce at all) mixed with scrambled eggs. When prompted, he also provided a bottle of ketchup to serve as a "dipping sauce." That was the whole dish.

Extrapolating from this, we can deduce that not all people should be allowed to cook, and, if the cooking is the decided upon mode of edible preparation, then some other solution must be decided upon for this cooking-impaired individual.

One other thing to consider is that (much like with Pizza toppings) not everyone likes the same items (some may be allergic to certain foods as well), and these considerations will need to be taken into account by whoever is doing the cooking.

Payment and Fair Exchange of Services

With two of the major decisions finalized, all that is required is to balance everything out so that everyone feels a fair economic solution has been reached. Often times, this becomes "everyone kick in some money for (x)". This is fine, and perfectly fair, for many groups. If, for instance, pizza is purchased, everyone can figure a fair (or nearly fair) distribution of pizza and (unless one person in the groups bogarts a pie) most can expect to eat their fair share with a few slices and breadsticks left over for late-session snacking.

However, what if the group orders Chinese, and everyone decided to split the check into exactly equal portions (not unlike when ordering pizza). Chinese has more options, and people can order as many, or as few, dishes as they want (without any requirement to share). If one person gets the (inexpensive) Lo Mein, and someone else gets two orders of Spicy Shrimp, a soup, and Egg Rolls, how is splitting the check into exactly equal portions fair?

The next solution is then to split the check along equal, portion-based, lines. This is perfectly acceptable in situations where each person is ordering their own items. Then, whether or not people in the group share, at least they know they got exactly what they paid for, fairly.

But, going back to Pizza, if the group decided, at a previous point, to each contribute a fair share in proportion to their serving size, how do you distribute the cost of pizza? Pizza can have a fluid proportion distribution (unless monitored, each person can take as much or as little of the pizza as they desire). The group can decide to apportion the pizza ahead of time, thus ensuring a fair distribution -- but this can lead to arguments (no matter how unwarranted) about the fact that "you guys making me pay more just because I eat more is stupid."

If the cost of the pizza is divided evenly (ignoring the amount people eat), then how does one reconcile that with the previous agreement for each person to pay for their own fair share (based upon portion size)? This, too, can lead to arguments about a double-standard, how the math doesn't equate, and how much "you guys suck because you're just trying to gyp me out of my own money."

The best plan is to decide upon one way of splitting the check, or to at least agree each time, ahead of time, how the food to money ratio will be handled, and make sure everyone is happy with the situation before the food is ever ordered.

I Buy, You Buy

There is a third option to the dividing of money: the oft used "I Buy, You Buy" Theorem, where-in it is proposed that each person take turns, not unlike a round-robin, where they each, on a rotating schedule, pay for the food (the schedule can be written down, if need be). This works out equitably so long as everyone agrees that this system is fair and balanced, and no one abuses the system.

There are two instances, however, where abuse of the schedule can take place:

  1. Certain members can conveniently arrange to have cheap food on the days they pay, and more expensive food on the days someone else pays. If the group regularly votes on all edible-consumption resolutions, a voting-block can rig the system to work out to their financial benefit.
  2. Certain members can conveniently (or inconveniently, as situations arise) not have the funds to pay for food on their days. Rearranging the schedule might seem like a workable solution, except then the person has to remember to bring money the next time (and they can either forget, or "forget" then, too).

In cases where there's trust, then the situation will (normally) work out.

Sharing the Cooking Duties

The "I Buy, You Buy" Theorem can also be applied to groups where cooking is the primary solution to the food dilemma. Again, each person is arranged on a schedule, and they take turns providing the food. If someone can't cook, then an additional arrangement can be made where someone else cooks in their stead, and the culinary-challenged individual pays for the supplies (generally as dictated by the pinch-cooker).

In other instances, where everyone is happier just bringing their own food each time, sharing, and not worrying about schedules, then each person in the group can supply their own (precooked or store-bought) dish. This takes away the financial burden of each person supplying all the food, or food money, at once, and so long as everyone feels that each person is pulling their weight with the food they bought (in comparison to what everyone else regularly brings), then no one on in the groups should be upset by this solution.

This is termed the "Applied Potluck Principle".

In Conclusion

Group situations can be difficult to navigate. The social dynamic of any gathering of individuals has a large set of variables to be determined before any edible-based conclusion can be reached. Making sure to set the rules and principles of the meal before the process of purchasing the consumable items will go a long way to ensuring that the group activity is well received by all, and doesn't devolve into a group of cranky nerds yelling at each other.