The Economic Principle That Helps Me Order at Restaurants

If you’re just eating one dish, you’re missing out.

An overhead picture of two people sharing several dishes at a restaurant table
Brian Finke / Gallery Stock

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In the 19th century, when European thinkers began developing the economic principle of diminishing marginal utility, they probably weren’t dwelling on its implications for the best strategy for ordering food at a restaurant. But nearly 200 years later, their work informs what I get for dinner.

The basic concept that these early economists were getting at is that as you consume more and more of a thing, each successive unit of that thing tends to bring you less satisfaction—or, to use the economic term, utility—than the previous one.

Recently, Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, invoked this idea in his newsletter, Experimental History, to explain why a flight of beer can be more satisfying than a larger glass of a single brew. “The first sip is always the best sip,” he wrote, “and a flight allows you to have several first sips instead of just one.”

The same principle, I’d argue, applies to first bites: If the first half of a dish tends to be more satisfying than the second half, why not have the first half of two dishes instead of one whole dish? In other words, when you go to a restaurant, just share every dish with whomever you’re with. That way, you get more first bites.

Diversification can free you from indecision when you’re torn between menu items that sound equally awesome. For instance, it is the answer to the classic conundrum of brunch: sweet or savory? As Mastroianni put it to me, “Do you really want to choke down three French-toast dulce de leche pancakes? No, you want one and a half of those, and then you want half of some kind of scrambled thing.”

Of course, people vary in how many dishes they’d like to try; many may not value variety enough to go through a negotiation process with their tablemates over what to order. Mastroianni suggested that such preferences might map onto “openness,” one of the personality traits known in psychology as the Big Five. People with high levels of openness might be more into sharing food, so that they can sample more dishes. That is definitely me when I go to a restaurant—personally, what I truly want, and I am admittedly a weirdo, is two to three bites of everything on the menu.

Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, told me that centuries ago, Chinese emperors would occasionally have banquets in which a couple hundred dishes would be served, and that at one abundant royal feast in 15th-century England, dozens of species of fish were served. Those preposterous spreads are basically my dream, but because I cannot live like a monarch of old, I will settle for sharing a far more modest number of dishes with my dining companions. (An important clarification: I am not arguing in favor of what restaurants call small plates, which are invariably expensive and insubstantial. I want normal-size plates, and I want to share them.)

Even I, a prolific meal-splitter, acknowledge that this approach has downsides and limitations. It can be difficult when people have different dietary restrictions or different budgets, and it doesn’t make sense if there’s a dish you know you don’t want to share. And once the food arrives, Dan Pashman, the host of the podcast The Sporkful, pointed out to me that if two people end up liking one shared dish much more than the other, they’re stuck rationing a precious resource. When Pashman was a kid, his family did a variant of meal-sharing, in which they passed their plates around the table so that everyone could try everything. “This is overall a great system, but once in a while you realize that someone else got something you like better,” he told me. “Like, I was happy enough with my halibut until I tried my brother’s pork chop. Now the meal is tinged with sadness.”

But there are lots of situations—even more, I’d venture—when diners could arrive at a mutually agreeable order that makes them happier than if they’d each picked one dish. I believe that splitting meals should be the default rather than the exception.

In fact, for most of human history, eating the same thing as everyone else was standard. Freedman told me that one major innovation of restaurants, which have existed in their modern form since the late 18th century, was that each person could order whatever they pleased. In some restaurants, the norm is to order food “family style,” sharing everything, but this idea of personal choice continues to define dining out today.

Yet even when people are inclined toward sharing, restaurants generally aren’t set up to accommodate them. To distribute shared food, people typically have to repurpose an already-used plate or ask for a new one, and then do the sometimes messy work of dividing it.

Restaurants do show flickers of awareness that many people don’t want to be locked into eating all of a single dish: They serve buffets, which are basically just meals shared by every customer, and they commonly offer to serve dessert with multiple spoons. But the food-service industry could do much more. Recently, Mastroianni and his fiancée traveled with her family to southwestern India, where they’re from, and at restaurants, he occasionally heard them order in quantities such as “three by five” or “four by seven”—that is, four orders of soup portioned out among seven people. In other words, the restaurants were set up for people to share meals exactly as they pleased.

But a world in which meal-sharing is the default would represent a shift not just in logistics but in values. Whereas a one-dish-per-person paradigm prizes individual choice—and perhaps even endorses a notion of private property—sharing a meal elevates compromise and negotiation. That can be complicated, but the payoff is variety, a more communal spirit, and a cache of untapped utility. Yes, being able to order something prepared just for you is, in the context of the history of eating, kind of amazing. But there is also real value in sitting down to share a meal and actually sharing it.