"If it's been in the trash, it's trash." -- Jerry Seinfeld
December 23, 2005 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Is there some sort of mental disorder, syndrome or condition that causes people to prefer eating off OTHER people's plates?

My wife -- who knows I'm posting this (and is just as curious as I am) -- is obscessed with leavings. If she and I go out to eat and order EXACTLY THE SAME THING, she'll eye my plate enviously. Whenever I eat anything, I gradually become aware of her staring at my plate. If I just hand her my plate, she doesn't want it. She's waiting for me to be done so that she can grab anything I left behind. She gets upset if I completely clean my plate. She can't explain it, but she insists that other people's crumbs taste better than anything on her plate -- even crumbs on her own plate.

I'm a germaphobe, so this goes against every fiber of my being. To me, if food has been near another person, it's tainted.

Generally, we joke about this whole thing, but we've both noticed that it's slowly getting worse. At work, she'll sneak into conference rooms after lunch and pick at whatever is on the plates. (I've actually thought about having a big banquet for her next birthday and not inviting her until after the dinner is over.) In true George-Costanza style, she has started eyeing candy dropped on the sidewalk or half-eaten items in the trash. She doesn't give in to these desires, but just the fact that she'd CONSIDER eating something from the garbage makes me feel sick.

Do any of you (or does anyone you know) "suffer" from this? ("Suffer" is in quotes, because my wife isn't feeling any pain. She's enjoying herself. If anyone is suffering, it's me!) What causes it?
posted by grumblebee to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't necessarily need to answer this publically, but does she have other food issues? The first thing that's jumping to my mind is guilt about eating, and so the taboo of "forbidden" food somehow seems appealing.
posted by occhiblu at 8:00 AM on December 23, 2005

I've actually thought about having a big banquet for her next birthday and not inviting her until after the dinner is over.


Er. Well, it sounds like a slowly-progressing case of obsessive-compulsive disorder to me.
posted by Gator at 8:01 AM on December 23, 2005


Perhaps I suffer a mild form of this. I don't necessarily need to eat things off everone's plates, but I do like to share food. To me, dining is a communal act. It brings me great pleasure when, at a nice restaurant, a group of friends performs the "let's share bites of each other's food" ritual. I always offer bites of my food to anyone at the table who expresses an interest. Much to my wife's chagrin, I often covet at least something on her plate, and I'm not shy about taking a nibble. This bothers her sometimes, but after seventeen years together she's mostly learned to live with it.

I must confess that I've eaten random leftovers many times. I don't do it always, but if I see something delicious going to waste, I have no problem saving it from a dirty plate (or — gasp! — even from the trash, though I'm quite particular about what I salvage and what types of trash cans I salvage from). Again, this isn't something I do often, but I do engage in the behavior from time-to-time.

No explanation other than I like food.
posted by jdroth at 8:03 AM on December 23, 2005

Yup, that's me. I'm not sure what else to tell you about it except that the one part I don't have is the "gets upset if I completely clean my plate." part. If my b'friend finishes all his food, I have no issue with it. I also don't think his food tastes any better, I just like eating it. On the other hand, I don't mind if he eats my food as long as he doesn't finish the last bite. My Mom also does this, so I assume it's some sort of learned behavior. The Jewish side of my family eats off each other's plates much more than the other side, but I know the sort of behavior you describe is not quite the same as saying "hey mind if I have a taste of your soup?"

That said, I definitely do it. I'll also eat candy from the sidewalk and -- very rarely -- I'll eat food that has been in the trash, but usually in that case only if I'm really hungry and/or out of money and/or it's wrapped and/or it's completely tantalizing food and/or I'm on a larger dumpster diving trip.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: I'm a germaphobe...

I'm not so sure about your wife, but I'm pretty sure this is a well-known mental disorder.

I agree. I'm actually borderline OCD. It would be ironic if my wife also turned out to have OCD, but our two forms of the disorder clashed with each other.

...but does she have other food issues?

Like most women I know (and quite a few men, including me), she's worries about calorie intake and weight. But this can't be all there is too it. Otherwise almost everyone I know would be a crumb-eater.
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 AM on December 23, 2005

LBJ did this too.
posted by the cuban at 8:11 AM on December 23, 2005

It sounds kind of harmless except for the "slowly getting worse" part. That's a little worrisome since people can develop worsening OCD symptoms over time; see Hughes, Howard.

If it continues to get worse I'd at least be evaluated by a shrink. It can't hurt and it might help.
posted by Justinian at 8:18 AM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: "all there is too it" = "all there is TO it"
posted by grumblebee at 8:19 AM on December 23, 2005

Is she from a big family? When there are 5 kids and popsicles come 4 to a package, taking other peoples food becomes second nature.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:34 AM on December 23, 2005

Maybe some off the wall form of Pica?
posted by pieoverdone at 8:36 AM on December 23, 2005

And also, in those mafia biographies they always talk about how stolen steaks taste better.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:37 AM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: StickyCarpet, good thought. But she's from a small family. One brother, two parents.
posted by grumblebee at 8:51 AM on December 23, 2005

(This is a truly fascinating thread.) The only person I ever knew who ate food from the trash was a Dumpster diver, and he had the stomach of an ox. He could eat anything, and did. Most self-sufficient person I've ever seen. I guess I'm not really answering the question, though, as I don't know the Latin name for EatingOtherPeoplesFoodItis.
posted by Happydaz at 8:54 AM on December 23, 2005

If somebody does come up for the name for this, I'd love to know. My daughter has always insisted that food (even the same food!) tastes better off someone else's plate... usually mine.
posted by Space Kitty at 9:33 AM on December 23, 2005

Regarding the sibling rivalry angle, when the table is being cleared my niece likes to take her brother's food off his plate and put it on hers before dumping it in the garbage.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:53 AM on December 23, 2005

I see this a lot in kids who have been neglected, as well as compulsively and surreptitiously stealing food. Also what StickyCarpet said about large families. Growing up in an environment where you don't get enough food or where attaining food is competitive can lead to this type of behavior.

A relative of mine was the youngest of an impoverished 12-child farm family. We used to call him "the garbage disposal." At one point we made him eat with chopsticks to slow him down.
posted by Marnie at 9:54 AM on December 23, 2005

The sneaking off to conference rooms thing is a bit of a red flag to me, pushing it beyond "quirk" into "developing problem".
posted by mkultra at 9:58 AM on December 23, 2005

Never accept (or ask for) a diagnosis online, as it's impossible to give, and confusing to receive. Just on the surface of it, doesn't sound like OCD, except maybe the compulsion part. A much more typical OCD profile would have the person be phobic about getting contaminated by other people's germs, rather than risk exposing him/herself to them, as you describe your own reaction.

Does it feel to her like a compulsion? Does she struggle against it, only to finally give in? Part of the question in my mind is getting clear on what part of the experience is the most important part. Only she can answer this, but it might not be the food that's the central element - maybe it's the "doing something forbidden" part, as occhiblu suggests? I'm focusing on the part where you said she doesn't want the leftovers if you give them to her, that she only wants them if she can take them - so I'd wonder if it's more about the "stealing" or the "doing something that people think is forbidden/disgusting" part.
posted by jasper411 at 10:31 AM on December 23, 2005

There are no diagnosis that match these symptoms in the DSM-IV TR, which is the list of diagnosable menatl conditions.

So No, not specifcally.
posted by Infernarl at 10:45 AM on December 23, 2005

Sounds like OCD to me -- the common trait for OCD is that the compulsion (which can be ANYTHING) must happen, or the person will start to feel anxious/bad/etc. It can come on at any time, any age, worsen over time, etc.

MTV is running an "I Have OCD" episode of their TRUE LIFE series right now -- you may want to try to catch it -- at the very least it's interesting to see how this disorder affects people. (The episode featured a girl at the dinner table and some of her issues might resonate with you and your wife.)

Bottom line, none of the answers here (including this one) can diagnose your wife. If it's become enough of an issue (and it sounds like it has -- you said "it's slowly getting worse" -- which is the red flag), she should see a professional to get some real answers.
posted by jca at 11:08 AM on December 23, 2005

I have OCD (but not this particular problem), and while I wouldn't jump to diagnose that, it sounds like a possibility, only for the hints that she gets upset if she's not able to do this.

OCD is really, really REALLY hard to deal with - even though I'm past a lot of my major issues, it's still something I struggle with at times of stress. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask her to consult a physician about this behavior. I know she doesn't really see a problem - but if it is worsening, it could get bad before she realizes it. That's one of the insidious things about OCD - you gradually change your behavior over time, so you don't really realize how wacko it is until you are in over your head.
posted by agregoli at 11:12 AM on December 23, 2005

I read an article about managing patients in a mental institution. They had two women, each with dining related issues. The first always thought someone was trying to poison her. She couldn't eat dinner with the other patients because she would continually scream accusations at them. The second woman insisted on eating things off of other peoples' plates without their permission. She, likewise, couldn't eat with others. So the staff sat the two women together at a seperate table. They told the paranoid woman that the food-stealer was actually her food taster, there to make sure the food wasn't poisoned.
posted by Clay201 at 12:46 PM on December 23, 2005

Grumblebee, why does this have to be something that is a mental disorder, as opposed to a minor eccentricity or quirk of your wife's personality?

I don't agree that sneaking off to conference rooms to pick at leftovers is in any way bizarre - it's very common where I work. People like the idea of getting food that someone else has paid for, for free; people like suddenly having a choice of food that's not the dull sandwich they brought to work and are now regretting; people like eating two lunches on occasion; people who are trying to lose weight and bring a light lunch to work will throw caution to the wind and eat something because they can't resist.

My kids love eating off my plate; they think there' s nothing funnier that nicking my food, even if they have the self-same thing on their own plate. I've walked into work in the morning and seen a discarded pizza and thought hmmm, could I? could I? And in practice, no I probably couldn't, almost certainly so once I'd got closer and could and see that it was dirty, or whatever. But I like food, very much, and even the sight of discarded food is enough to get me hungry.

Food is good. People like food. Free stuff is good. People like getting free stuff, feeling like they've scored something for nothing. Put the two together...

It doesn't sound like this is affecting your wife's life in any significant way, causing her or anyone else any harm (barring your own dislike for it), and I would be really cautious about slapping any Disorder of the Month label on it.

I'm uncomfortable with all the instant diagnoses of psychiatric disorder - not just on this thread, I've seen it before - on Ask Metafilter. Whether it's OCD or depression or ADHD or Asperger's or whatever, I do think people should be a bit warier in general about making a diagnosis about someone they have never met, based on a couple of paragraphs of description at most, and of stuffing every dimension of behaviour into a clinical disorder or aberrant behaviour.

Human beings are odd. How many of us don't have one habit or another that someone would regard as strange, even if our nearest and dearest don't? How many of your relatives or friends have some kind of minor eccentricity that doesn't - and won't - end up in some full-fledged bout of mental disorder? If someone has a quirk or eccentricity, does that necessarily mean they are suffering any kind of mental illness.

At the risk of setting off the fireworks, I do wonder if this instant labelling is a culturally-influenced thing; I don't seem to see this so much in discussion with other people in the UK; more often with people from the US.
posted by reynir at 1:07 PM on December 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

Wow, my mother's behavior is eerily similar to grumblebee's wife. Mom insists on sharing food with Dad or having small portions but then ends up eating off of Dad's plate or picking at the food left on the serving dish. It's quite possible that she ends up eating just as much, if not more, from other plates/dishes than her own. She likes to root around in the "left overs" of serving dishes, picking at things and taking bites here and there. It's actually kind of gross because most people don't want to eat more after she's gone through it all.

I never thought that anyone else behaved this way -- absolutely fascinating.
posted by Mike C. at 1:12 PM on December 23, 2005

My take, and I'm just thinking out loud here:

There's a real male/female split here, in the original post and in the comments.

Food's weird. It tickles us on a primate level. (Next time you're at a restaurant, watch the diners as the food is bought to their table. Their eyes will be riveted to the plates. Fixated.) Any woman here ever said "I don't want anything, I'll just have a few of your fries when they come"? Any man ever replied with "Look, I'll buy you a whole plate of fries, you can leave what you don't want".

My pet theory is that food sharing/stealing is a way of affirming social relationships, and is more important to women than to men. Thoes fries taste better because he let you have them.

What you're describing with your wife seems to go a bit beyond that, though, so I'm probably way off base.
posted by Leon at 1:24 PM on December 23, 2005

Food is good. People like food. Free stuff is good. People like getting free stuff, feeling like they've scored something for nothing. Put the two together...

Taking a few fries off of someone's plate or ganking the leftover donuts from the morning marketing meeting is one thing.

Having to restrain yourself from eating food that IS IN THE TRASH is batshit.
posted by pieoverdone at 1:34 PM on December 23, 2005

There's a real male/female split here, in the original post and in the comments.

mm, except aren't guys usually the "garbage disposals"? My dad always finished anything any of the kids didn't, and when my half brother was a "growing boy" he likewise would eat whatever no one else wanted. My whole family is a food sharing type of family, though - we don't have any italian or jewish blood, but we've always had that kind of attitude to food, and I'm always surprised when I go to other people's houses for holidays and they go on about what an indulgent feast they're preparing, and it looks to me like a nice polite little dinner. We always made way too much food & treated meals like big social occasions. I still pretty much always clear my plate, though I've learned to exercise a little more restraint at the outset.

With my family I will not think twice about sharing off each other's plates, though I never think it tastes better due to that, so I can't explain your wife's behavior, except to echo what someone else asked: does it feel like a disorder to her? It doesn't necessarily sound like one to me, but I don't know how strong/uncontrollable the urges seem to her, etc..
posted by mdn at 1:39 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Leon, that actually does resonate a little with our situation. For me, food is food. I LIKE the bonding ritual of eating with other people, but I rarely bond over the food itself. I could bond just as easily playing scrabble or sitting around telling stories. I just happen to bond around food because meals are an easy way to get people together.

But food is a much loaded concept for my wife, and I suspect it is more often for women than it is for men (though my wife and I are probably at extreme, opposite ends of this spectrum).

By the way, I think all the responses here have been fascinating -- including the ones urging my wife to seek professional help. In the interest of not-being-misleading, I'll admit that I asked this question much more our of curiosity than out of genuine concern. My wife's behavior is something we both laugh about and something which, in general, I find an endearing eccentricity. It doesn't interfere with her life, her relationship with me, or her job. It's just odd (to me) and I'm curious about it. She is too, since she can't explain why she does it.

Naturally, if it ever becomes a serious problem, she'll go to a doctor.
posted by grumblebee at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2005

mdn: maybe there's a distinction to be made between food shared during the meal, and leftovers. But I'm just making this up as I go along, so feel free to ignore me.
posted by Leon at 1:44 PM on December 23, 2005

In the interest of not-being-misleading, I'll admit that I asked this question much more our of curiosity than out of genuine concern.

That's the problem with postings from random strangers on a site like AskMeFi, some may see a problem where there is none, and vice versa. :)

Personally, I read a disconnect between your question and your follow-up comment. The question being "Is this a disorder? It's getting worse." in tone, and your follow-up comment is more along the lines of "Oh, it's not serious or a real problem."
posted by jca at 2:46 PM on December 23, 2005

Ah, the five-second rule in action, chez grumblebee! This entry in Answers.com suggests that Missus Bee is in the mainstream:

[Ig Noble Prize winner Jillian Clarke] discovered that 76 percent of women and 56 percent of men in America are familiar with the [five-second rule....] Women are more likely to eat food that has been on the floor ... [and] cookies and candy are more likely to be picked up and eaten from the floor than cauliflower or broccoli.
posted by rob511 at 3:44 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: jca, I can understand why you feel that way. Maybe I should have worded my original post differently. But all I can tell you is that I really wasn't concerned when I posted the question. You can believe that or not -- I can't convince you, and it really doesn't matter. The important thing is whether or not the question generates interesting/informative answers. Which in my view it has.

One thing that might help you understand my point-of-view: though I'm an atheist, I come from a Jewish (New York/Woody Allenish) background. My "people" tend to be somewhat chatty about therapy, mental-disorders, etc. Pretty much everyone I know -- for good or ill -- has been in therapy, takes anti-depressants, etc. If you DON'T have a disorder, there's something wrong with you. The point of the game is not CURING yourself, it's figuring out how to label yourself. I can merrily prattle on about my OCD and Aspergers.

Maybe this is a sign of our "over-diagnosed, over medicated society," but the truth is it doesn't phase me. I've reached a point where I don't get a strong feeling, positive or negative (or scared or whatever) when someone tells me they're manic-depressive, have OCD or whatever. I just think, "Okay, so now I know YOUR pathology. Want to hear mine?"

Currently, I'm spending Xmas with my wife and some of her old friends. This AskMe thread has been a source of great interest and amusement for all of us. We'd never heard of "pica" or the LBJ connection. We never knew other people shared this "affliction." It's fascinating how some here think it's no big deal while others feel my wife needs medical attention.
posted by grumblebee at 3:54 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Ah, the five-second rule in action...

My Germaphobia says, " NO! NO! NO!!!! If it even THINKS about falling on the floor, it's got no business going anywhere but the trash!"

A little drama just played out about five minutes ago. My wife was feeding her 15-month-old godson mashed potatoes. She was worried that the food was too hot, so she kept blowing on it before shoving it in his mouth. EEEEEWWWWW!

Then, he knocked the fork on the floor and she picked it up and kept feeding him. GROS!

Then, when he decided he didn't want any more, she preceded to eat the rest of it WITH THE SAME FORK THAT HAD BEEN IN HIS SLOBBERY MOUTH. DOUBLE EEEEEWWWWWWW!

THEN, she offered me some! *GAG* *BLEH* *YUCK*
posted by grumblebee at 4:00 PM on December 23, 2005

At work, she'll sneak into conference rooms after lunch and pick at whatever is on the plates.

OK, after reading people's reaction to this, can you clarify? Do you mean she'll grab a leftover sandwich from a platter of sandwiches, or she'll grab that last bite of sandwich that someone left on their plate? I assumed the latter, which is why it seems beyond weird to me- I've done the former all the time.
posted by mkultra at 4:27 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Sad to say, she WILL take bites out of things that people have actually eaten parts of. Especially cake. She LOVES cake and icing, and she's been known to go from plate to plate, eating the leftover bits of icing.
posted by grumblebee at 4:57 PM on December 23, 2005

Oh, grumblebee, my family would have driven you insane! When we were moving the babies from baby food to solids- we don't just blow, we touch each bite to our lips to test the heat, and THEN blow on it if it's too hot.

But on topic, in my house, we kids were the food pickers. Dad would leave meat on the bones of his fried chicken breasts, and after he was done, we'd be allowed to pick them clean. This was a huge treat, and now that I'm grown, I get the same happy feeling when I get to finish my husband's dinner.
posted by headspace at 8:34 PM on December 23, 2005

At the risk of sounding crude, is this not just the usual thing that, on the one hand, she simply wants to eat more food, but at the same she wants to avoid being seen doing things like actually ordering more food for herself, or giving herself bigger portions, and thus avoid being branded a fatass?
posted by chrismear at 9:37 AM on December 24, 2005

Or in other words, there's simply less internal guilt associated with food that is actually meant for her?
posted by chrismear at 9:39 AM on December 24, 2005

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