Magali Trejo-Martinez, a 22-year-old living in Salem, Oregon, recently went on a date that was rather uninspiring. “I had dinner, had a couple margaritas, and then went home,” is how she recapped the evening. This outcome wasn’t entirely surprising—she says she wasn’t very interested in the guy when she agreed to go out with him—but it wasn’t a letdown either, because he paid the bill. While her heart wasn’t in it, her stomach was: “I mean, if it’s dinner, I’m not going to say no, so that I don’t have to go home and cook,” she told me.
Trejo says that when she goes on a date where food, not romance, is her priority, she doesn’t feel bad, noting that she still makes an effort to be an engaging dinner companion. “If it’s a guy that’s inviting me out, I do expect them to be the one to pay,” she says. “But I am also bi, so if I like a girl, I like to be the dominant one and then I will go and pay.” And when she is the one who gets asked, she’ll sometimes still say yes to an otherwise inauspicious date. “If it involves food,” she said, “I am always down.”
In the age of online dating, media outlets have been fascinated by women who are in it for the food. Often they are portrayed as wily and deceptive, a category of person to be cautious about. “Some Women Are Going on Tinder Dates Just to Score a Free Dinner, So Be Extra Careful How You Swipe,” read a Maxim headline.
But men do it too. Esteban Rosas, a 26-year-old resident of Phoenix who works for a credit-card company, says he often gets messages on Tinder from men he isn’t particularly drawn to, but a few times a month, he’ll take them up on their invitations to meet up if he has nothing else going on. Recently, he’s gotten some free pho, and the tab for the nicest meal he’s ever been treated to by someone he wasn’t interested in came in at more than $200. “I do always reach for my wallet, because I’m also not just a mooch,” he said. (He often picks up the tab himself when he’s the one presenting an invitation.)
“It’s kind of what you do nowadays in this whole dating-app world,” Rosas added. “It’s just like, if I’m not going to get anything out of it romantically or a relationship out of it, well, at least I can get a free dinner out of it.” But to him, this represents a downside of apps that can make dates so quickly and readily available, in the sense that any given date becomes less important when it seems there are plenty of other opportunities out there. This can end in a scenario where “no one’s actually taking anything seriously,” he laments.
Ultimately, people probably need to be “Extra Careful” when swiping on men too: Last year, a 45-year-old man in the Los Angeles area was alleged to have deceived a series of women he met online, going out to eat with them and then ducking out before the bill arrived. One woman says he ordered more than $100 worth of food in one sitting. (He was later sentenced to 120 days in county jail after pleading no contest to three misdemeanor counts of “defrauding an innkeeper by nonpayment” and one misdemeanor count of petty theft, and ordered to stay off Bumble and Plenty of Fish while on probation.)
The noncriminal version of dating for food, it turns out, is not entirely uncommon behavior: A study recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that about a quarter of roughly 1,000 women surveyed said they had at one time or another elected to go on a date with an unpromising suitor in hopes of getting a free meal. The study, authored by the psychological researchers Brian Collisson, Jennifer Howell, and Trista Harig, employs the unfortunate coinage “foodie call” to refer to this practice, which has also (again unfortunately) been called “sneating” (a mash-up of the words sneaky and eating).
Whatever it’s called, people do it. Most of the study’s respondents said they’d never treated dating as a way to get free food (and also that they didn’t approve of doing so). But those who had gone on a free-food date reported having done it an average of about five times, and about a quarter of those who’d done it at least once said they do it “frequently” or “very frequently.”
There are a couple of limitations to the study, though. First, it looks only at women and at dates involving a man and a woman. “We chose this focus in part because of its consistency with traditional dating scripts and because this type of foodie call has received media attention,” the researchers write. And second, the responses of the women surveyed—who were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, which many researchers use to find subjects who will complete short tasks in exchange for modest cash payments—don’t necessarily represent the practices of any broader population of daters. Which is to say, this study isn’t a perfect indicator of how common “foodie calls” really are.
One interesting contribution of this study, however, is that it also took stock of respondents’ personality traits. And it found that people who went on dates to get free food got higher scores on a series of multiple-choice questions designed to measure for a set of three traits that psychologists ominously call the “dark triad”: Machiavellianism (basically, a willingness to manipulate other people), psychopathy (a general lack of empathy and regret), and narcissism (an undue focus on the self). (The researchers weren’t diagnosing people with any disorders, but rather trying to test for levels of these traits that wouldn’t necessarily warrant a diagnosis.)
Despite this association, the researchers stressed that these traits might not in and of themselves cause people to make “foodie calls.” “Other variables that we did not measure, such as previous relationship experiences or beliefs, could have influenced both a woman’s personality traits and their dating behavior,” Brian Collisson, a co-author of the paper and a professor at Azusa Pacific University, wrote to me in an email. “For instance, it’s possible that being lied to repeatedly or mistreated in a past relationship may cause someone to be more calculated and manipulative when dating.”
Another pattern the researchers found is that the women who went on dates primarily to eat for free were more likely to have more traditional beliefs about gender roles, which is something that the researchers tried to measure with other survey questions. One possible explanation for this is that women who were generally uncomfortable with having a man pay for a date were also uncomfortable doing so for the purpose of getting free food. (The study didn’t look at men’s traits and worldviews.)
The habits of the women in the study are enabled by cultural expectations: A strong majority of straight daters believe that men should pick up the tab on the first meet-up. Nevertheless, for the majority of the women surveyed, that alone isn’t enough of a reason to go out with someone.
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Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education.