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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Meal-splitting experiment yields lesson in dining psychology

Tanya Isch Caylor
Tanya Isch Caylor
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, March 04, 2013 12:01 am
For years, my parents have bickered over the notion of splitting a meal at a restaurant.Dad would prefer to do it almost every time out, not just to save money but to avoid the temptation of oversized restaurant portions. His brothers and their wives do it all the time.

But Mom bristles every time he suggests it. After all those years of cooking, eating out still feels like a treat. She likes to order what she wants, without worrying whether the person taking their order thinks they're being cheapskates.

As an overzealous eater, I've got a long history of taking Mom's side in this debate. But the harder I work to avoid dietary sabotage, the more I've come around to Dad's way of thinking. So last week, when our weight-loss team went out for breakfast after recording a 26-pound loss in month one of a YMCA contest, I finally indulged Dad's dining fantasy by agreeing to split a meal with him.

Mom winced as the waitress took our order. But dining etiquette experts — ranging from The News-Sentinel's Karen Hickman to “Table Manners” columnist Helena Echlin at www.chow.com — say it's OK to split an order as long as you're not obnoxious about it.

You could even say it's a way of sending a message, via your pocketbook, to quit serving gluttonous portions in the midst of an obesity epidemic. (Just make sure you tip well, so the staff doesn't avoid your table during future visits.)

This particular dining experiment wasn't much of a sacrifice on my part. We were at the Indiana Pancake House in Bluffton, where five-egg omelets are served with pancakes and another side dish. My half order arrived on two plates, along with a small bowl of fruit. The omelet, though smaller than usual, was still the size of my hand. Freed from guilt, Dad and I dug in.

On the other side of the table, Mom and our metabolically challenged 10-year-old, Colleen, tackled their full breakfast orders. On the surface, it seemed like yet another case of thinner people making smarter food choices. But as we ate, I realized it was really more a question of perception — and psychology.

See, Dad and I both have a habit of finishing everything on our plate, no matter how full we are. (Mom and I ate at this same restaurant just two days earlier, ordered identical breakfasts, and I wound up eating every morsel.)

There was no point in feeling smug, because our dining companions wound up eating only half their orders as well. Mom and Colleen both boxed up their leftovers for later in the day.

So, in reality, we all four split meals — only Mom and Colleen shared theirs with their future selves.

Dad and I would have a hard time doing that unless we set aside the “leftovers” first. And even then, there would be problems.

Dad wouldn't really want to deal with his breakfast later in the day. He'd rather eat a bowl of cereal for lunch and — if they aren't committed to going out for dinner — maybe have some popcorn and a banana for an evening meal. (Habits like these are why he's already shed the six pounds he was hoping to lose in the weight-loss contest.)

He'd probably wind up throwing his leftovers away, which would bug him because he hates to waste food.

As for me, I have a hard time sharing with my future self. It wouldn't help much to ask for a box when I placed my order, because I know I'd eat my leftovers long before my next meal — probably shortly after I got home.

But committing to share ahead of time with another person made it much easier to disregard my inner pig and accept the serving size I really wanted.

Our experiment revealed that splitting a meal obviously doesn't work for everyone. If it pushes the wrong buttons in your head and just makes you want to eat something else after you leave the restaurant, then it doesn't make sense to do it.

Everybody needs to figure out what works best for them — and the rest of us need to quit trying to impose our quirky customized convictions on other people. Got that, Dad?

Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.


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