Experimental Error banner

Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

A scientist’s hierarchy of free food

My workplace offered free food at a seminar recently. I must have expressed joy, because a colleague snickered at my reaction and said, “Yeah, I’m not really in that ‘grad student phase’ anymore.”

That made me pause. I’m nearly 12 years out of grad school. I know grad students are notorious for their pursuit of free food, but … was there a point when that was supposed to stop? Were we all supposed to say, “Sure, I require nutrients to live, but now that I have a graduate degree, I’d rather go to greater lengths and expense to obtain those nutrients”?

At a previous workplace, I even had a free food buddy. Her desk was in the same room as the Public Table of Random Goodies, so sometimes I’d be in the lab and receive a text message that said something like, “There are brownies.” Then—like any responsible scientist—I’d drop whatever I was working on and run at full speed down the hall to beat the crowd. Nothing is worse than a text saying, “You just missed brownies.”

Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of free food, which I consider to be inherent to a scientist’s career. And I’ve learned that not all free food is equal. There’s a hierarchy that scientists should be aware of when deciding whether an otherwise mediocre event is worth attending.

Thus, Science Careers presents, from worst to best, my Official Hierarchy of Free Food.

No food:

Most events have no food. Screw most events.

No food, but no one will disparage you for bringing your own food:

Sometimes, through unspoken social channels, it will become clear that you can bring your own lunch to a seminar—plastic container, fork, dessert, napkin—and sit there and eat it like a medieval monarch, making the world your dining room, and no one will glare at you. It isn’t free, but at least you can put something carbon-based into your mouth in a slightly different room than usual.

Potluck:

This category doesn’t exactly constitute free food either, in that you have to bring food to receive food, but a quid pro quo is better than no pro quo at all. Plus, homemade goodies are usually fairly tasty, with everyone looking for the compliments that come from impressing their colleagues. Of course, there’s always that one co-worker who brings something super spicy and doesn’t label the dish as such, just so that they can say something like, “You think this is spicy? When I make this for myself, I use twice as many ghost peppers!” We get it. You have no taste buds. All hail you. Overall, though, potlucks are definitely a step up from eating your own food.

Little hard candies:

The absolute lowest tier of legitimately free food, this smidgen of corn syrup plus flavor plus cellophane can (a) keep you awake for five additional minutes, (b) maybe briefly mitigate the effects of type 1 diabetes, and (c) that’s about it. I’ve seen these set out as a token gesture, and never have I once heard a scientist say, “Holy ever-loving rapture! Is that butterscotch? This, colleagues, is an event for the ages.” Plus, the cellophane wrapper has been engineered for maximum decibels, giving you the choice between unwrapping it quickly and loudly, earning glares of disapproval, or slowly and loudly because you think it will be quieter, earning glares of disapproval.

Generic packaged supermarket snacks:

Don’t get me wrong. Free snacks are nice, and I appreciate the effort to procure them. But if the free food consists of a bag of plain potato chips or a Kirkland box of “chocolaty” chip cookies, I’m going to start weighing whether it’s worth making myself less hungry for dinner.

Fresh cookies:

Now we’re talking! Large, chewy, and sometimes presented on a tray alongside strawberry halves and stray mint sprigs, freshly baked cookies—for instance, those from a university’s catering service—represent the lowest tier of what can be considered legitimately good free food. Just don’t arrive late, or you’ll miss the white chocolate macadamia goodness, and you’ll be taking the express train to Oatmeal Raisin City.

Crackers, cheese, fruit, veggies, and dip:

There may not be any actual cooking involved, but don’t be fooled by the apparent crudity of crudités. A spread like this covers three of the four food groups, and maybe even all four if you count hummus as protein. You know another word for that? DINNER. Think about it. Just because the department called them “snacks,” and they only give you a plate the size of an Olympic medal, that doesn’t mean you can’t amass a meal-level collection of diverse calories. Just watch out for whole fruit that you absolutely cannot eat at your seat without making a huge mess. Unless you want to sit there with sticky hands and nowhere to spit seeds, that orange should go into your pocket.

Box lunches:

A step higher in complexity, box lunches do not require multiple trips to constitute a full meal, but … meh. Cold chicken salad on a cold, stiff roll; a dollop of mayo-heavy coleslaw; a mealy apple; and a wax-paper-wrapped pickle that leaked on everything aren't exactly the stuff of fantasy.

Anything in steam trays:

Look. No one is going to haul in a series of stainless-steel trays, heat them up over Sterno burners, and lay out tongs unless these trays contain something totes legit. Crab cakes? Barbecue chicken? Grilled summer squash? Anything is possible when you’ve got placards describing the food in a curly font. Not only is this food sufficient for a meal, but it’s outright better than what you’d likely cook for yourself. Such a spread is even worth faking interest in another department’s seminar. And remember, gallon-sized Ziploc bags of barbecue chicken and squash can hide easily, if not comfortably, in the waistband of sweatpants.

Is excitement over free food juvenile? Maybe. But excitement over anything is juvenile. My kids go nuts over cardboard toilet paper tubes, for goodness sake. I think scientists benefit from keeping some of their childlike qualities as they progress through their careers. It keeps us grounded, provides commonality, and takes a hatchet to the “too professional to get excited about free food” attitude.

But the most important thing to remember about free food is … Oh, snap! A text message about free muffins at the front desk! Out of my way!

Read more Experimental Error stories