Dear Helena,

I am a student and usually eat in the college cafeteria. My best friend always picks the inside of her bagels out, squishes the dough, and molds it into pellets. Last week I told her it was disgusting. She got all indignant, as if I was the rude one. Was I irrational, or is it wrong to play with your food? —Grossed-Out

Dear Grossed-Out,

I can relate. A wine critic friend of mine recently built a Lilliputian teetertotter from a fork balanced on a cork, with olive pits on one end and cracker fragments on the other. He bragged that it was his way of creatively expressing himself. To him, however, there was a distinction between his sculpture and your friend’s bagel balls: “I only play with remnants.”

Whether you’re using detritus or not, playing with your food is a form of fidgeting. It distracts others, and it suggests that the person playing is distracted—more interested in his or her lettuce origami than in the conversation.

Food play also shows disdain for your dinner. Lindsey Moreland, a yoga teacher and Ayurvedic practitioner in Taos, New Mexico, says, “Playing with your food is disrespectful to the source of life energy, or prana, that food represents.”

Food play also shows disdain for your dinner.

Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) have educated us about the cost of what’s on our plate, including the fossil fuel used to grow and transport it, and the environmental impact of pesticides and fertilizers that may have been used in its cultivation. Obviously, sometimes you can’t eat everything you are served. But you shouldn’t draw attention to your leftovers by making a sculpture out of them.

Furthermore, your friend’s bagel mangling suggests unresolved psychological issues. In playing with her food, she is regressing to the behavior of a five-year-old. Her food play might be an unconscious cry for attention, much as a toddler might smear ketchup all over the table. Or perhaps the habit, like thumb sucking, soothes anxiety. Ideally, your friend would see a trained psychotherapist to get to the root of the problem. But I wouldn’t recommend suggesting this over breakfast.

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