is it rude not to eat at a business lunch?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding a debate I recently had with a friend regarding a business lunch or dinner.

I work as a fundraiser (primarily with donations from foreign governments), and a number of my meetings end up being held out of the office in cafes/restaurants. As I work for a local organization and am mostly dealing with embassy staff, the power dynamic is such that often the check is picked up by the person I’m meeting with, but not always. My office does not pay for any of this, but as this mostly is a bill for a coffee, I consider it in the same way that for my job I need to invest in a more professional woredrobe than my colleagues.

Recently, I was invited to a business lunch at a restaurant where I am really hoping I don’t have to pay for myself, as it is on the expensive side. It’s not at a four star New York City restaurant price that would truly be beyond my budget, but it’s more than I’d want to spend on lunch and also, as the restaurant is in a hotel, it falls into the category of over-priced hotel food.

I was complaining a bit to a friend about perhaps having to buy myself lunch there, and she said that it would be completely fine for me to show up at this meeting and just say I wasn’t hungry and not eat. To me, this seems like a breach of business etiquette, particularly seeing that it will just be me and the woman I’m meeting with, and she very explicitly mentioned meeting to talk business and have lunch. Also, as a fundraiser, a large part of my job is building rapport with potential donors (even if they’re just government representatives), and intentionally not eating in such a situation would appear to me to create awkwardness. I’ve been at numerous coffee or cocktail meetings where one person is hungry and orders food and the other doesn’t and that has never been uncomfortable, but as this was a specific invite for lunch, I think it’s different. My friend has told me that I’m just projecting my own issues onto the scenario and others wouldn’t think it was strange to not eat. I disagee, but am open to being told that I’m wrong.

No, you’re right and your friend is wrong. When you meet someone for a business lunch, it’s assumed that you’ll eat. If you don’t, you’re likely to make the other person uncomfortable — few people want to eat a full meal across from someone who isn’t eating at all, especially in a business context.

But your lunch costs really should be a work expense. You’re meeting with this woman for your job, not for something vaguer like networking. It’s part of your job, and therefore your office should reimburse you for the expense, just like they’d pay for a plane ticket or an admission fee to a conference you were required to attend. These are work expenses.

I can’t tell from your letter if you’ve brought this up with your manager or not. If not, you should. I can see an argument for them not picking up the tab for your coffee, on the assumption that it’s small and you might have bought yourself a coffee anyway, but an expensive meal that you wouldn’t be having if not for your job? They should pay.

Of course, this might all be moot, since generally the person who issued the invitation pays. So hopefully she’s going to pay for you herself anyway. But if she doesn’t, and if your office refuses to pay this legitimate work expense (grrr), scope out the menu ahead of time to plot your strategy. Can you order two appetizers as a cheaper meal (and attribute it to the appetizers being the most interesting thing on the menu, which they often are)? Order vegetarian, which is often cheaper? Or some other strategy that someone who is less of a glutton than me might suggest?

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. AJ-in-Memphis*

    I’m pretty sure (but not 100%) that the IRS will consider this a work expense and the OP should be able to claim it on the their income taxes… It’s worth checking out at least, though.

    I KNOW that cell phone and some wardrobe costs are, but you need to keep good records on what was spent and what it was used for.

    1. AJ-in-Memphis*

      Also: If the office does reimburse/pay up-front, you can’t claim those expenses to the IRS, though….

    2. Your Mileage May Vary*

      There’s a minimum there, though, for claiming non-reimbursed expenses. I can’t recall what it is but we’ve got some tax people here who can probably chime in.

      OP, if the office won’t reimburse after you’ve asked them, is it possible for you in the future to suggest to the other person that the meeting not be over lunch? By that I mean — offer another time and perhaps suggest that you come over to their office. I don’t like lunch meetings because I don’t feel like I get as much done compared to meetings in an office so I try to get out of them as much as possible. But I’m not in your field. It may be that you have to project a bit of a social mien as well as a work one.

    3. LL*

      This may not count as a justifiable tax deduction. I won’t go through all the IRS rules, but *local* business meals are considered “entertainment” and you can only claim 50% of costs. Further, there are restrictions for dining dutch or trading the cost (ie “it’s your turn to pay”). In other words, you can only claim 50% of the costs when you’re treating the client to a local meal.

    4. EM*

      I looked into this a few years ago, and your out-of-pocket work expenses had to be something like 7% of your salary. Depending on what you make, that is likely to be thousands of dollars, and even then, you won’t be making that money back claiming a deduction on your taxes. Deductions just lower your taxable income.

      1. LL*

        I thought it was 2% of your AGI. And then, only the expenses above and beyond 2% are deductible. (In addition to the limitations I mentioned in my previous post, plus about 20 additional restrictions that I didn’t even want to go into.) This is one of those pesky deductions that is a total PITA and can be a red flag for audits.

  2. Anonymous*

    So order a salad. Or an appetizer. Or the soup of the day.

    I’d order a dessert, personally, but I am sure that is low-class of me.

    I cannot imagine why your job doesn’t pick up the tab for you on occasions where the embassy doesn’t. Have you actually sat down and talked with them about this? Do they know they’re making things awkward for you?

  3. Rana*

    I like the appetizer idea, and also suggest that whatever you get, don’t make a big deal out of it. Just order what you order (so long as it’s not something strangely tiny, like one roll of bread and a coffee) and proceed as if it were a normal meal. Avoiding drinks more elaborate than ice tea or soda will also help keep the cost down.

    Do be aware that a lot of appetizers are finger food, though. That can be tricky for other reasons.

    1. AnotherAdmin*

      Agreed – and order it with confidence, as if you always eat that way. Acting sheepish or embarassed about ordering a light lunch is like screaming I’M ORDERING A CHEAPLY AS I CAN!!!

    2. Ivy*

      Yes, just order an appetizer and go with it. Personally, I only ever order appetizers because I can’t eat a lot in one sitting. Even for dinner I’ll order an appetizer. I doubt anyone would notice. Be confident in the fact that there are people who actually only order appetizers regardless of whether or not they’re trying to be cheap :P

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I always check the appetizer menu when I eat out; sometimes, the entrees are too large and I can’t eat all that food. Appetizers are often smaller, and if pressed, the OP can always say she just doesn’t like to eat so much at lunchtime.

      A super-nice restaurant may not have finger food stuff, unless it’s bruschetta or something. I don’t know for sure, as I can’t afford them either (!), but I would assume it’s not chicken nuggets or the like.

  4. Tater B.*

    Ugh….I despise business lunches, and not for the financial aspect.

    I almost NEVER eat lunch. I’m usually not that hungry in the middle of the day, plus I don’t enjoy having to wolf down my food due to a time crunch. When I am at a business lunch, I usually just go with the soup and salad special. It’s cheap and most people don’t notice if your plate is still somewhat full.

    And I’d definitely see a business lunch as a work expense. One thing I’ll give my old company credit for was prompt reimbursements. I can’t believe there was a time when I actually felt bad for getting reimbursed! I was young and didn’t know any better. LOL

    1. Ariancita*

      Agree. I also don’t eat lunch and don’t like that pressure of time. I’m a very light eater, so I generally don’t do big meals anyway. But I also think trying to have a real conversation while eating is very awkward. You can’t talk and chew (gross!). So usually little is eaten anyway, and it’s all very awkward. (I also don’t like dinner dates for the same reason.)

  5. Bridgette*

    I think you are right to distinguish between coffee or cocktails and a full meal. It’s very normal to meet at a cafe or something with someone and only one person eats or has a drink…but lunch is lunch. It would be rude and awkward to not eat. I would do the appetizer or salad strategy, both perfectly acceptable for lunch, and don’t mention your reasons for getting one of those. Definitely look up the menu online. Sometimes they have smaller plates or things like that.

    As for your friend saying you’re projecting your own issues…I have to wonder how familiar she is with your business culture. It’s obvious that there is an expectation of business meals and quite rightly, sharing a meal builds rapport. I’m totally with you on not wanting to spend good money on overpriced food you don’t really want, but it’s necessary (provided your client doesn’t pay or your company won’t reimburse you).

  6. KayDay*

    The entire time I was reading this I could not figure out why the OP was writing to ask if it was okay not to eat, instead of asking what to do if one’s employer will not pay for expensive business lunches! They absolutely should be paying–it’s a very straightforward fundraising expense. It’s one thing to pay for coffee yourself to avoid the hassle of getting approval/reimbursement, but an expensive business lunch?! Company pays.

    Now, if you are still trying to keep lunch/fundraising expenses down for your organization (always a good thing to do) you could try ordering an appetizer as an entree or something else cheap from the menu. But I agree, I would feel really awkward if my lunch date was not eating at all and I was eating a full meal.

  7. businesslady*

    I used to do admin for a development (fundraising) team at a not-for-profit, & ALL food-related expenses from donor meetings were covered by the organization: breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, you name it. since those with deep pockets often have expensive taste in restaurants, I’d hope that your managers could understand the burden that’s placed on employees if they’re made to pay their own way.

    1. Wubbie*

      This 100%!! I’m in development right now (but thankfully, not a fundraiser myself!) and I just cannot fathom the organization not picking up the check. Especially if you’re going after high level donors, they’re not going to want to be brought to Olive Garden because the fundraiser can’t afford a nicer restaurant.

      I’m really surprised by this.

    2. Natalie*

      Sometimes that food is even a donation in and of itself. I was actually just looking at the donor list of a place I volunteer, and nearly all of the “in-kind” donations were local restaurants and bakeries.

  8. LL*

    I would think the company should cover the cost of the OP’s lunch. If that’s not going to happen, I have the following suggestion for keeping your costs down. When eating lunch on the cheap, order a salad when the weather is warm (“It’s so hot today; I’m going for a refreshing salad!”) or soup when the weather is cold (“A bowl of hot soup sounds divine on such a cold day!”). For a drink, water with lemon.

  9. Lisa*

    Invite your boss to the next “meeting”, make sure the person you are meeting with gets appetizers, drinks, and order an extra plate to share too. Then hand the check to your boss. That is the only way they will take the hint when its out of their pockets.

    Or create a family emergency 20 min before the lunch, convince your boss to go in your place. Make sure you pick a client that never pays.

  10. some1*

    “Or create a family emergency 20 min before the lunch, convince your boss to go in your place. Make sure you pick a client that never pays.”

    Really? She should lie to her boss and donor to prove a point? That’s pretty unprofessional and immature. Not to mention has the potential to get her canned.

    1. Lisa*

      She is going bankrupt paying for it herself. I worked for a non-profit and I was surrounded by “rich people” that don’t need a paycheck and forget that money is an issue and don’t understand that “minor” expenses add up. After a few of these lunches in one week, you are out $400 dollars. Non-profits do not pay the greatest usually too. She would make more money on unemployment, and I bet her replacement would quit in a minute when they realize these expenses are out-of-pocket but basically required as part of doing the job.

      1. Anonymous*

        I think saying she’s going bankrupt is an exaggeration… “It’s not at a four star New York City restaurant price that would truly be beyond my budget, but it’s more than I’d want to spend on lunch”

    2. PuppyKat*

      I agree with some1. If the OP hasn’t brought up this issue with their boss before, then a simple review of the lunch bill with the boss afterward is a more professional way to handle it.

  11. Mike C.*

    How in the heck is your workplace not paying for this? This is not “something you pay for as an investment in your career”. You might as well be paying for the electricity to power your computer at your desk or the cost of the accountants who send out the paychecks. This is incredibly unprofessional on the part of your employer.

  12. AG*

    For one, you should definitely eat at a business meal, even if you just pick at a salad. Friend is wrong.

    Second, the company should be reimbursing when the employee picks up the tab! But fortunately usually whoever invites pays for the meal, especially when they suggest somewhere pricey.

  13. Anonymous*

    Go with a salad. Often they’re big enough to look like a meal. And hopefully there will be bread.

  14. OP*

    I work overseas, so specific US tax write-offs or modes of business culture at my office (such as paying for meals) are not the same. Also, as I work in a non-Western NGO where we primarily raise money from the Western world there’s also an attitude that they should always pay for everything (from coffee to literally organization expenses). So raising such specific issues with my boss I doubt see getting very far as it’s just a different attitude.

    Ultimately speaking the lunch bill was picked up the person I was meeting with, so that wasn’t a problem in the long run.

  15. Rachel B*

    Meals should absolutely be reimbursed. When I’m trying to keep costs down for my business, I insist that my lunch partner orders first (“I’m still deciding”), so I can follow his or her lead. If they order a starter, I’ll order soup. A salad or app for a main course. If they order dessert, I’ll stick with coffee or tea or ice cream, which is usually the cheapest item. For alcohol, I usually order one drink and then switch to seltzer with lime. I think you stick out when you insist only on tab water, especially at the start of the meeting.

  16. just laura*

    I also would go with soup as an inexpensive but not overly cheap option. But, like others, I would love to hear from OP as to why this is acceptable in her office!

    1. OP*

      As the OP, I mentioned before, we’re a local organized overseas – so these aren’t US/Western business norms at play. As the fundraiser, I basically serve as the bridge between my organizations’ norms/customs and the Western world (who financially supports us).

      For the most part, I’m not paying deeply out of pocket for meetings but there is definitely an attitude that these types of meetings aren’t “work”. That I’m some how getting away with something already because this counts as time on the clock. Financially speaking, for the most part this hasn’t been a major concern and my question really did just relate to the issues of not eating.

      1. Jessa*

        In that case then definitely eat something whether you’re paying or not. It’d feel really weird if you ate nothing, or ate significantly lower than the local norm for that meal (IE if everyone has a meat or big protein dish for lunch, and you just eat a bitty salad, that’d be remarked upon.)

        1. anonymous*

          What about a Chef’s salad or a Chicken Club salad? Plenty of protein, it takes a while to eat it, it usually looks like a full entree. IDK, I’ve only bought them, ready made, at places like Walmart or a supermarket, I don’t know what fancy restaurants charge for them. Fancy = a waitress brings it to the table.

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