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.