How to eat on a first date to make sure you get a second one
The key is to share your dishes – so pass that spoon seductively – and never order spaghetti
What you order, and how you eat it, can play a major part in how successful, or otherwise, a date is. Photographs: iStock
What are the secrets to a successful dinner date? For an activity that, in basic terms, involves little more than sitting down to a meal and not mentioning your ex, there is a surprisingly extensive list of dos and don’ts. “Never. Order. Spaghetti,” says my boyfriend’s mum, in the sort of tone you might reserve for a conversation with an the undertaker.
“Plan conversation topics in advance,” screeches the part of my brain forever warped by teen magazines’ edicts on “how to talk to lads”. As it turns out, scoring a second date can be predicted by a single act: sharing food. At least that is according to psychologists at Leeds University, who have analysed the dining habits of couples on the Channel 4 series First Dates.
They compared 58 dates where couples shared food with 49 where they did not. Nearly all of those who tasted each other’s dishes wanted to go on a second date – contrasting with 43 per cent of those who did not share.
But there is more to impressing over dinner than forgoing your final churro. (Indeed, endearing yourself to someone to the point that you are offered said churro is a feat of seduction in itself.) There is choosing the right food, for a start. This is no mere case of picking whatever is most tempting from the menu; several staples seem to be on a kind of universal dating blacklist.
Most obvious is the aforementioned spaghetti, which few can pull off like the leads in Lady and the Tramp. Love coach Persia Lawson warns against “any sort of stringy food” after an unfortunate first date during which she almost choked on a piece of Parma ham. “It got lodged down my throat and I had to pull it out. It was so gross.”
One friend tells a cautionary tale about mackerel: those hairy little bones really cleave to the canines, apparently. In short, especially challenging food is best avoided – but don’t feel as though you have to abide by arbitrary bans, says Olivia Potts, a cook and author of A Half Baked Idea. “The old cliche of not ordering garlic on a date is a bit outdated now,” she says. “Just make sure your date indulges as much as you do, and you’ll be A-OK.”
Besides, most people agree that a date’s behaviour is more important than what they order or how they eat it. From personal experience, I suggest refraining from taking someone to the cafe where you passed many happy moments in your last relationship (“Jen loved the carrot cake,” is not a phrase Gwen wants to hear) or trying to assert your metropolitan foodie status by mocking your companion’s pronunciation of “quinoa”.
And unless you know – and by that I mean you have proved beyond reasonable doubt, in a way that would stand up in court – that your date shares your interest in wine, refrain from droning on about the list. It will bring to mind Jacob Rees-Mogg filibustering in the Commons. And this is not a sexy vibe.
The verdict is mixed on how much table manners matter. Somewhat predictably, William Hanson, an etiquette coach and co-host of the Help I Sexted My Boss podcast, holds them in high regard. “In the west, our eating implements are knives, forks and spoons. If they can’t deftly handle the cutlery they have used since their childhood, then I would raise an eyebrow.”
But Potts says a lack of table manners “doesn’t mark out a bad person – or a bad partner”. A better indication of character, she says, is how they treat the staff. “Never sleep with someone who’s rude to a waiter, for God’s sake.”
My own manners are dubious. I hold my knife and fork in the “wrong” hands and regularly bring along my own water bottle, suggesting offputtingly Gwyneth Paltrow levels of H2O devotion. But I would argue that pointing out someone’s poor table manners is more frightful than simply exhibiting them – I’m looking at you, old flame who instructed me to start holding my fork in my left hand so as not to “upset” his family.
Far better to focus on conversation than cutlery usage – though, on this note, mind that you’re not nattering so intently in the first 10 minutes of meeting that the waiters give up on you. Yes, you have made a vivacious first impression, but you are now starving and forced to observe a tense 20-minute silence while you attempt to flag someone down to belatedly place your order.
And now to the issue that befuddles even the canniest of daters: the bill. In 2019, women have jobs and their own money, which means it is frankly preposterous to cleave to the embarrassingly patriarchal and heteronormative notion that the man should pay. But while the breakdown of traditional etiquette is good for equality, no new rubric has taken its place, which can be confusing. Fresh guidelines are required if we don’t want to end the night with a boring discussion of finances.
Hanson has a suggestion. “Whoever initiated the date pays – whether that is a man or woman, whether the other one on the date is of the same or different gender,” he says. “Only split the bill if it was a terrible date and there is zero chance of another one happening.”
So what if it is not your first date, but your 101st? Can you let standards slip if you’re dining with a long-term partner? I put this query to the relationship therapist Val Sampson, thinking of my tendency to denude my boyfriend’s pizzas of their olives when he’s in the loo. “Just because you’re a long way down the line doesn’t mean you don’t have to bring your best self,” she says. “This is the person you’re meant to care about most in the world.” I am momentarily chastened. But unfortunately, my best self just really likes olives.
Ultimately, the rules about eating on dates have not changed: even if you’re generous with your chips, a host of other pitfalls could ruin the romance. Being kind and interested is more important than wielding cutlery correctly and choosing the right restaurant. Reassuring, eh? Except, of course, if you’re strong on etiquette but low in humanity. But then you can look at it another way: if you don’t want to admit to being terrible company, you can always blame your choice of spaghetti. – Guardian.