What Not to Order at a Business Lunch

what not to order at a business lunch2018 Update: We still stand by this advice for what not to order at a business lunch — you may also want to check out our more recent post with our best dining etiquette tips for business lunches.

What foods should you avoid ordering at a business lunch — and are sandwiches among them? Reader M has a legitimate question about what not to order at a business lunch, but some of the Google results I found on a preliminary search made me laugh out loud (including the brilliant, if outdated, Tumblr blog, 500 Still Frames of Joe Biden Eating a Sandwich).  Here’s her Q:

What’s the proper procedure for eating a sandwich at a business lunch? Hands or knife and fork? Or should you avoid this altogether? I think you should follow the lead of your guests, but wanted to get a second opinion.

how to eat a sandwichWe’ve talked a lot about  different aspects of this — from our top tips for business lunches, to how to stick to your diet at a business lunch (even a gluten-free diet), and even whether you can take leftovers from a business lunch — but I don’t think we’ve explicitly talked about what to avoid ordering.  I’ll be honest — my gut reaction to Reader M’s question was that this verges on the “we’re thinking too much about this” side of things (although I was amused by the prospect of titling the post, How to Eat a Sandwich), but it’s a legitimate question — sandwiches can get super messy, with unexpected bites.  I’ve been to way too many catered group lunches (particularly as a lawyer!) where the only option was sandwiches, though, so I don’t think there’s anything inherently unprofessional about picking up a sandwich and eating it.  Still, unless we’re talking about an open face sandwich (or something obviously messy, like a drowned sandwich), a knife and fork seems like a bit much to me.  So for my $.02, I’d say to pick it up with your hands and take the smallest, most delicate bites you can — chew thoroughly and repeat.

It got me thinking, though — what things would you never order at a business lunch, readers?  I remember a roommate telling me years ago that tortellini was the perfect date food (small, controllable bites); there’s a lot to argue for tortellini as the ultimate business lunch food also.what not to order at a business lunch - image of spaghetti

If pressed, for my $.02, I probably would not order anything like this at a business lunch:

  • Anything that you have to work really hard to eat, like crab legs or lobster (unless already out of the shell)
  • Anything that you can’t take a normal- (if not delicate-) sized bite out of (such as those jumbo sushi rolls that fall to pieces if you try to bite them in half and result in you chomping away for five minutes with a very full mouth)
  • Anything that would make me paranoid that I had stuff stuck in my teeth, such pesto (or even broccoli)
  • Almost anything on the bone — chicken wings, rotisserie chicken, or fish with the bones still in — because they can be awkward to eat neatly
  • Anything that might make my nose run — for example, I love kimchi stew but often feel like I need a box of tissues to eat it!
  • Depending on my outfit (and the particular dish) I might avoid ordering long noodles (spaghetti, pho, ramen, etc) because they can be difficult to eat in a neat way
  • Anything that might drip down my arm — tacos, ssam, and yes, I suppose some sandwiches, also!

Readers, what are your best tips for what NOT to order at a business lunch? (Or, what would you order but then eat differently than if left to your own devices — e.g., cutting your lettuce in salads or eating French fries with a fork)?

Wondering what not to order at a business lunch? Most professional women know that messy foods like spaghetti can be a minefield -- but what else should be avoided, either for efficiency, propriety, or business etiquette reasons?



  1. Reason #100 I don’t want to be famous: People will make tumblrs of you doing totally normal things, like eating a sandwich.

    • Miz Swizz :

      I think I’d enjoy a Tumblr of me eating sandwiches. I destroyed some Quiznos the other day and I’m sure I liked hawt doing it.

    • I don’t know; the Kim Jong Il Looking At Things Tumblr was pretty good.

    • The worst story I know of happened to a former coworker. On his first day the CEO took him to his club for lunch. CEO ordered an Arnie Palmer, coworker, not knowing what an Arnie Palmer was (half lemonade, half iced tea) ordered a Bud Light. He noted that something was wrong and came back and asked what an Arnie Palmer was. It was 10 years ago and still makes me giggle.

  2. Equity's Darling :

    Just don’t obviously order the most expensive thing on the menu like some of our summer students insisted on doing. If it happens to be the most expensive thing, fine, but don’t say “oh, are you paying?”, then say “great”, and excitedly, look down the menu and order the most expensive steak, and then ask for half to be wrapped up to take home.

    I really did not like one of our summers.

    • Ew, really?

      • Equity's Darling :

        That was the least of the summer’s numerous transgressions.

        • Darn it! Hit report, not reply!

          I would love to hear more of the transgressions!

    • Boy, I can beat that one. It was 10 years ago, and I still remember. Working really late for weeks while at trial, and one evening the named partner decided he’d had enough of take out and said we should go to his members-only club (this is in DC) for a quick dinner instead. As the senior associate on the case, I asked whether we could include the 2 summers that were helping out that night (named partner didn’t know they were even working that night!). He reluctantly agreed. We finished dinner, and the named partner quickly waived off the waiter’s request re: coffee/dessert, as we had to get back to the office. One of the summers (quietly, thankfully) asked me whether she could order a dessert “to go” for back at the office. My stunned look must have answered her question…. Sheesh!! Seriously tacky on so many levels…

      • Somehow that doesn’t strike me as quite as egregious. It’s inappropriate, for sure, but she *asked* you! And did it quietly!

        • Yeah. It’s wacky and socially clueless, but I wouldn’t consider it egregious unless she’d actually you know, ordered the dessert.

          It was really nice of you to invite the summers along, though. And a side benefit that one of them got an extra learning experience in lawyerly/businessy mores.

      • gablesgirl :

        Your mistake was asking if the two summers could go. Not your place to do so.

        • Seriously? Most partners wouldn’t be aware that summer exist if associates didn’t trot them out every once in awhile. I see it as part of the associates’ job to facilitate interactions between summers and partners, and to advocate for them as needed (also, trade “summer” for “more junior associate” and it all still applies).

    • Anonymous :

      My summer firm always took us out to lunch so we knew they were paying. But my pet peeve was that sometimes the associates would use it as an opportunity to get a really nice steak lunch, so we felt like that was license to also order the steak (if we wanted–oftentimes it felt like too much, but at the same time the associates want you to get it so they can justify it!). And other times, it’d be an equally nice restaurant, but they’d order sandwiches so we felt like that was the way we were supposed to go. It was kind of ridiculous trying to figure out which day was a “splurge” day and which day was a “normal” day, especially when they’d point to you to order first (you can only use the “hmm, it all looks so good, please come back to me” so many times!).

      • Killer Kitten Heels :

        That’s where “I’ve never been here before – what would you recommend?” comes in handy.

  3. TO Lawyer :

    My rule for business lunches/dinners tends to be the same as for dates: eat whatever you want as long as its relatively neat (and you won’t be paranoid that things are stuck in your teeth) and don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.

    • Veronique :

      +1, except for business I try to match at least some of the gang in terms of healthiness and quantity of food. For example, if everyone else is getting an appetizer, I’ll get one too. If nobody else is getting dessert, I won’t get it, even if it looks really good! If everyone else is getting salads or fish with veggies, I’m not going to get the deep-fried, cheese-smothered extravaganza. If everyone else is getting burgers and fries, I’ll do a turkey burger or skip the cheese, not the salad with dressing on the side.

      The healthiness rule only applies in “getting to know you” situations. Once my coworkers know I’m not lettuce girl, I feel free to eat as healthy (or not) as I like.

  4. Ok, I’m going to threadjack my own post — can anyone tell me if the tech problems from a while ago are still happening? A) Replies in the wrong place, and b) A different comment count on the front page than when you click through? I think here was the last discussion…


    TIA, ladies!

    • Different comment count was happening for me this morning, but as of now (3:30ish EST) it seems to be corrected.

  5. RegGoingAnon :

    Sorry for repost, was at bottom of thread last time. Thx for recommending Ask a Manager which had some helpful articles. Any further thoughts? Much appreciated!

    Going private for this but would appreciate some thoughts from the group. How often do recruiters ask you for your current salary? In my experience, it’s pretty infrequent, and I really hate to give this info because I don’t think my salary is what it should be and I’d be moving to a geographic area with higher comp. I don’t want to get a lower offer just because I’m currently underpaid – any thoughts on this? Am I being weirdly private to not give this info? What’s the norm? Thanks so much!

    • I’m usually asked. But, without reading the AAM advice, would consider telling the recruiter “frankly one of the reasons I’m looking to move is because I feel my experience is undervalued. I currently make X and would be looking for an increase, after adjusting for differences in market salaries/COL in the new location.”

    • “My target for this market is X…is this in line with what you’re seeing?”

    • RegGoingAnon :

      Thank you both, I think stating expectations is the way to go, which I have done, but they still want my current salary. If they continue to push, I guess stressing the expectations (and how firm I am on them) is my best option. Thanks so much all!

    • Anonymous :

      Steer the conversation away from your present salary to your expected future salary if you take their position. Your post suggests that you are gainfully employed, so make sure that the recruiter or HR lady understands that you have no motivation to move to a new position unless your salary is in line with the current market.

      If they still insist on knowing current salary couch it in terms of the fact that you are grossly underpaid for your skill set/geography. Also see if you can make the case that your current job is an easy 38hr/wk affair, while the proposed new job is going to require more hours, so that should factor into compensation.

    • Anonymous :


      Also keep in mind that the hiring manager is the one who acutually administers the budget for her/his department. If you actually decide that you like the non-monetary aspects of the new position, and you are offered the job, do not hesitate to delicately approach this issue with the hiring manager

    • I’m usually asked (even by internal recruiters), often in the very first conversation. I have often been able to fob them off by saying why don’t we talk about that at a later date, we haven’t even scheduled a first interview yet. That doesn’t always work and when they push really hard I’ve given in. Not great advice for your situation, sorry.

  6. Kate Hutchinson :

    I used to work for a German company, and when I went out to lunch with my two German co-workers, they ate everything with a knife and fork: sandwiches, tacos, pizza–you name it. It might be worth considering that business lunch in Europe means knife and fork.

    • Yeah, the French eat pizza and fries with a fork and knife, which looks so stuffy to me, but they think our custom of putting your non-dominant hand in your lap while eating looks odd (and possibly sketchy) so there you are.

    • This is what the manageing partner does! Everything with a fork and knife, even a banana at work! I think Margie must have told him his hand’s were filthy and NOT to put them directley on Food, so he eat’s with a knife and fork–also fried chicken Yay!

      When I go out to eat, I never get greazy stuff; onley salad’s and sometime’s chicken in the salad. I also love Cobb Salad and Waldorf Salad if I am in a dessertey mood but want something filling. At the party there was alot of potatoe salad that Margie made, but it was bakeing in the sun and Grandma Leyeh always says NEVER to eat potatoe salad (or coal slaw) that has been sitteing or bakeing in the sun. So I didn’t.

      The flank steak was a bit chewey, tho the manageing partner said he was marinateing it all night. I thought it was OK, but had alot of it as well as alot of corn on the cob stuck in my teeth all afternoon. FOOEY!

      Harold said we should meet in the City, but I do NOT think he even work’s. His father kept ooogeleing me, but I am used to that. He had the woman with him again. I am sure they are very close by now. I wonder whether Willem will text me. He is a cleint already I think with Madeline and the manageing partner, but I am not sure what kind of work I could do for him in bankeing. I think he might be interested in me not only b/c I am a lawyer, but b/c I have a littel expereince in deriveatives with Myrna I could tell him about.

  7. Anonymous :

    I think as Kat said, there’s a tendency to overthink this. Because otherwise I can sit here and rule out everything on the menu:

    –No steak (because it’s the most expensive item on the menu)
    –No sandwiches (including burgers)
    –No pasta (unless it’s macaroni or some other short pasta)
    –No salad (greens in your teeth)
    –No soup (splashes, and risk of slurping)
    –No tacos (lol at trying to eat those without making a mess)

    Depending on where you live, fish is just as expensive as steak and the smell could offend some people at the table. Oh, and don’t think about eating the bread either because that can get in your teeth. It’s too much to think about! Just order what you want and focus on the discussion, not your co-diners entrees.

    • You’ve basically eliminated everything on the menu.

      • Just order a water with lemon and you’ll be good to go.

      • I think that was Anonymous’s point — that if you worry about the possible consequences of any menu choice, you can come up with a reason that it’s risky! I try to avoid the really messy stuff but otherwise, I pay attention to (1) how many courses, (2) that I don’t pick the most expensive thing, and (3) that it’s not a total disaster in the making, like tacos or giant sushi bites, and then am just a compulsive napkin-user at business meals.

        • Anonymous :

          Yes, thank you, that was my point.

          And Cynthia, lemons squirt juice on your neighbors! Better make it plain water. No ice, because nobody likes an ice chewer ;)

  8. In-House Optimist :

    I would say that French onion soup is a bad idea though. So stringy! :)

    • Solo in Flats :

      Yes! In my past life, I ordered French onion soup at lunch with my new boss the first day on the job. What a mistake!

    • An old coworker of mine used to eat French Onion soup with her fingers while we were out to lunch. Just lunch with coworkers, not an official business lunch, but we all learned not to go out to certain places with her!

  9. I never order anything with raw onions at lunch. That smell lingers for a long time!

  10. I would never order anything with alcohol.

  11. The problem with ordering a sandwich is that you can’t always predict how crunchy the bread is going to be. I ordered a sandwich at a fancy restaurant during a post-interview lunch and it came with bread so crunch that it couldn’t be eaten delicately even with a knife and fork. I ended up pulling the contents out and eating them with a fork, but then my bread was just sitting on the side of my plate. I didn’t get that job. Probably not only because of the weird looks I was getting at lunch – who orders a sandwich and then doesn’t eat the bread!? *sigh*

    Anyway, I definitely caution against sandwiches because of the crunchy bread issue.

  12. …and now I’m nervous about my interview, which may include lunch. I guess small pasta is the way to go? I usually look at the menu to determine what looks good in the mid-range of prices (or lower) that won’t be dripping, sticky, crunchy, or potentially getting stuck in my teeth. That usually eliminates much of the menu, but often a pasta (with a cheese instead of drippy sauce, preferably) with chicken or something similar can be found.

  13. I would also like to advise against ordering spaghetti at lunch – not only are they difficult to eat, but if you weren’t careful enough, it’s likely some of the red tomato sauce will land on your own clothes and – even worse – those of your neighbours. Because those stains can be difficult to wash out, it can suddenly sour the mood of a lunch if something like this happens.

  14. I’m reminded of a conversation with my Indian friend over business lunch etiquette. I was explaining the oddities of US etiquette (such as that you eat with the “wrong” hand on purpose to slow you down. Unless you’re a lefty like me)

    I eat rice with a fork; he eats rice with a spoon. Our Chinese friends use chopsticks. None of those are the obvious “correct” method. So how do you eat rice at a business lunch?

    You don’t. Grilled chicken and potatoes. It’s just easier.

    • Everyone I know eats with their primary (usually right) hand and cuts food with the fork in their left and knife in their right. Am I missing an important part of US etiquette?

  15. An interviewer once took me to dinner, saying, “oh, I always take people to this place because the chocolate souffle is so amazing. You have to make sure to order it ahead of time because it takes 20 minutes, but it is so worth it…” On and on and on about the damn souffle. I ordered first and, because she had talked it up so much, I ordered a souffle. She did not.

    Dessert arrives, and it is the size of a dinner plate. There is no way one person can eat this entire thing. I was embarrassed and offered to get a second plate and share it with her. “Oh, no, I don’t eat sugar.” WTF?

    I figured I didn’t get the job because I didn’t pass her crazy-ass souffle test. Two and a half months later, she called to offer me the job — I guess no one else passed either. But I had another job by that time.

  16. I would also add anything really blatantly unhealthy to this list of Don’ts. When I was a young buck, I ordered a sausage and cream sauce pasta dish at a business lunch. It was full of nasty orange grease and every (older) person at the table made note of the fact that I was young and unconcerned about eating a plate full of grease.

  17. Transplant :

    I learned two simple rules growing up: never order the most expensive thing on the menu (then you don’t have to worry about being totally inappropriate even if you order first) and never order a sandwich or hamburger. Sandwiches are “informal food” and inappropriate for business lunch. In addition, your hands get dirty eating a sandwich…..and you most likely will have to use them to use to shake your guest/host’s hand after the meal. Blah.

    Also, my mother taught me to never show my shoulders or my toes at the office. Sometimes I wear peep toe heels, but will never stray beyond that.