The Professional Food Choices at Business Events

This situation happens all the time to every professional, even if they are not in a client-facing role: You have to meet a colleague, your boss or a prospective customer for a meal. On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal. But we all know how awkward it can be to eat a messy meal like a burger in front of someone, where it’s almost impossible to look graceful. And how tough it is at a networking event to eat finger food and balance a drink in your other hand while trying to look professional and smooth networking with someone.

There are other situations as well. Sometimes you’re asked to recommend a dish, or you don’t know whether it’s appropriate to order an alcoholic beverage or not. How do you know what to order?

Whether you realize it or not, your meal choices can say a lot about you. And while you do want to respect your diet, whether you are vegetarian or gluten-free or love to eat meat, you can make choices that will make a good impression and avoid potentially embarrassing situations, or you can make bad ones. For example, continually taking clients to the same unimpressive, unclean bar and ordering wings, fried cheese sticks and nachos for business lunches can make a bad impression. If that type of food is typical for your group of friends, that’s fine! And if it’s common in your industry, that’s OK too. But for some professional arenas, that type of fare sends the wrong message.

Here are a few potential problems you could run into and how you can avoid them to make wise choices related to food in a business setting in your industry and in specific situations.

The appetizer. A typical appetizer at a casual restaurant is chicken wings, and most of us love them. The problem is that they are messy, especially if you have to handle any paperwork or want to show a client a portfolio. If your fingers are full of sauce, you have limited yourself a lot. Try boneless wings, and use your fork and knife. If that isn’t an option, save the wings for a Friday night out with your friends. Choose something that will keep your face and fingers clean and be easy to eat. If you’re attending a networking event, don’t go in starving so you can have your hands free, if needed. Have a substantial meal or snack in advance and either only have a drink, or choose the foods that are easier to eat gracefully at the event and skip the rest.

The main course. With the main course, you have a lot of different options, but you want to make sure to present yourself as an experienced business professional. Whatever you decide to order, take small bites and focus on the conversation. Again, try to avoid something with a lot of sauce that could possibly stain your clothes or the papers out on the table. If you feel like you would have to use your napkin as a bib, don’t order that dish. If you are at an Italian place and they have great pasta, try smaller pastas, such as ravioli or penne, as opposed to spaghetti. You will have more control over the dish and avoid sauce splattering. If you can’t handle a business meal gracefully, a potential client may think that you are unable to handle their business.

Drinks. If you are out to lunch, avoid hard liquor, unless there is something particular that your client loves and you know them well enough to order something like that with them. Err on the side of being conservative, however. You want to avoid seeming like a lush in the middle of the day. Stick to something light and refreshing that won’t cloud your thinking. Make sure that it will pair nicely with your meal and your client’s meal. If you aren’t certain, check out the menu of the restaurant online before going, or call in advance to ask what they would recommend. Unless the client has a very specific taste, they will generally expect you to take the lead with suggesting a bottle of wine or a specific drink. If you decide on beer, don’t drink it out of the bottle. Pour it into a glass. Again, give the impression that you are a professional.

 Dessert. Although you would probably share a dessert with your significant other or your friends, this obviously isn’t the time for sharing. If you know the colleague you are eating with well, and they offer or suggest sharing, that’s fine. If you don’t know them well, it’s better to allow them to take the lead. And if you don’t want dessert but your client does, at least order a coffee or tea so you are enjoying something together. They will feel more comfortable if you do so.

Special diets. If you are a vegetarian or have certain dietary restrictions, it is important to check the menu of where you are going to eat beforehand. This will allow you to know your options beforehand so you won’t lose a lot of time quizzing the waiter on their menu. It may also be useful to find out if the person you’re taking to lunch has any dietary restrictions of their own.