Photographer: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

The Economics of Dining as a Couple

Sure, protectionism would guard your pommes frites. But free trade ensures that the best goods reach both sides of the table.

Marriage counselors tell us that couples frequently tie the knot without discussing the core matters that can cement or sunder their marriage: finances, children, religion. Well, let me add one under-discussed biggie to the list: restaurant dining.

I am eternally astonished to find not only that many couples I know failed to discuss this key area before they marched up to the altar, but also that many of them still have not developed a joint dining strategy even after 10 or 20 years together. This is madness. You are placing undue stress on your relationship, and you are very probably having a suboptimal dining experience, thereby wasting time and money and missing out on deliciousness. As a romantic economist might put it in a wedding-reception toast, couples have the chance to jointly move to a higher utility curve.

There are basically four strategies that a couple can practice at a restaurant. Whether you attempt these outside of marriage is between you and your god. These can also be explained in terms of economics.

1. Autarky. This is when a country is closed to imports or exports, and produces everything it consumes. In the restaurant context, it means that you are each independently deciding on what to eat, with no input from the other person, and then solely consuming what you ordered. Anyone who tries to reach across to sample those delicious looking pommes frites will be stabbed in the hand with a fork. If it is a good marriage, the stabbing will be followed with an apology: “I’m so sorry. I thought you were my soft-shell crab.”

An economist will tell you that autarky is terrible. You’re missing gains from trade! When you eat only what you yourself have ordered, your options are limited. And even extremely delicious foodstuffs are subject to diminishing marginal returns: The first bite of your ribeye is mouth-watering. The 20th bite is still good, but you are probably not enjoying it as much as the first bite. You have gotten acclimated to the taste. Meanwhile, across the table, there is a delightful-looking sole meuniere. Even if you prefer ribeye to sole (and honestly, who doesn’t?), you may well prefer “the first bite of sole meuniere” to “the 20th bite of ribeye,” and your sole-loving dining partner may well feel the same way about your ribeye. If each of you huddles suspiciously over your own entrée, you are enjoying dinner less than you could.

Who this strategy is good for: People on weird diets, people with deadly food allergies, people who have already called a divorce lawyer but haven’t yet served the papers.

2. Individual production with trade. Under this model, you both order whatever you want, and allow the other person to take a few bites in exchange for a few bites of their food. This is how the world economy works, and it is much better for dining than autarky. You are reminishing those marginal returns, and moving both of you to a higher utility curve.

And yet, you are still leaving gains on the table, so to speak. Say your partner is indifferent between chicken tenders and potato skins as an appetizer. This is, to be sure, somewhat inexplicable; potato skins are obviously superior to chicken tenders. But we will leave your bad romantic choices out of this discussion, and focus on the economics. If your dining partner is genuinely indifferent between the two choices, and you let them choose without saying anything, there is a 50 percent chance that you will end up with a worthless option to consume a few bites of badly fried chicken, rather than a very valuable option to eat a delicious baked potato section topped with melted cheese and sour cream.

Who this strategy is good for: People on first dates who do not want to appear pushy, people who cannot decide what movie to watch on Netflix without three hours of negotiation.

3. Individual property rights, with option trading. Now we’re moving toward a more centrally planned economy. The menu is individually consulted, and then the two parties state their preferences. If these preferences are strong, then matters proceed much as in the above strategy. However, if indecision is expressed, the trading is opened: “If you get the clam chowder, I’ll get the mushroom crostini, and we can split.” Option trading is usually, but not always, confined to the appetizer course. Any offer can be refused, and a substitute offered -- “What if I got the clam chowder, and you got the ham timbales?” -- or both parties may reluctantly conclude that no trade is possible, and revert to their original choices.

Well done, Team Restaurant! You are now beginning to realize the magnificent benefits of trade. Coordination and cooperation have permitted you to agree on choices that jointly improve utility.

However, I must tell you that you are still probably not at the highest valued use of your food dollar. You are almost certainly investing most of your effort in appetizers or shared desserts, which are the minority of your spending, time and consumption. If you want not merely to improve your utility, but to maximize it, then you are going to have to invest more effort in coordination.

Who this strategy is good for: People whose tastes in food have only limited overlap, people who have not yet finished reading this column.

4. Full food communism. A communist economy is a terrible idea. A communist dinner table, on the other hand, truly is a bounteous paradise. This is the final flowering of the dining experience, when the barriers wither away and all ordering is centrally planned, with the fruits distributed equally. You will know that this happy moment has arrived when you start telling the waiter “Just put the plates anywhere; we share everything.”

It is, to be sure, an advanced technique, which requires a fairly intimate knowledge of your partner, and a certain generosity of spirit. Each couple will have to work out their own exact strategy, but this is roughly how it goes at the McSuderman table.

A moment is taken to read over the menu individually, with an eye to both your preferences, and the known preferences of your partner. (If pork belly is on the menu, I do not have to ask Peter whether he wants to order it; he knows the same thing about me and mushrooms.) Each party composes a mental list of the things they want to try. Each party is allowed one “must have,” and may plead for a second on the grounds of extraordinary exigency, such as the presence of both pork cheeks and venison roulade on the same menu that contains the bouillabaisse their partner has been dying to try. The list may be as long as you like, as long as you understand that you may not get everything you suggest.

Once the lists are composed, one party opens by stating their interests; the other party strikes anything they absolutely don’t want, and adds in any item that was on their list, but not their partner’s. The first party then proposes a menu, usually of items found on both lists, but sometimes with items substituted if, for example, you jointly named four items of interest, all of them entrees. The second party can accept or propose amendments, and this process continues until you have agreed on a menu. And then … bon appétit. In general, dishes are split scrupulously fairly, but a good dining partner will be careful to ensure that the other person gets the bigger portion of anything they particularly love.

This sounds rather ponderous. And it probably is the first time you do it. By the 15th time, you will zip through the menu at lightning speed, because you will have a good sense of what your partner is likely to want, and will compose your own list accordingly. Eventually, you’ll find that you actually order faster than a couple following any of the above regimes.

Faster? But how can that be, with all that negotiation?

Because you no longer have to go through the internal negotiation between various wants. When you’re only getting, at most, one appetizer and one entrée, you tend to spend a long time choosing those dishes. When you double the choices, you halve the agony of deciding whether you want pasta or seafood this evening. You’ve also increased your possible solution sets; we may well order one entrée and four appetizers, if that’s the side of the menu we find more appealing.

Who this strategy is good for: Humans who eat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.