I'm not a big fan of the breakfast or lunch interview. Perhaps for an all-day, meet-tons-of-people type of interview, a meal might serve as a nice break from the standard format. However, I've been witness to many interviews where the only meeting is at a dining table. Why am I not a fan of the mealtime interview? A simple rule my mom taught me years ago: Don't talk with your mouth full.
Don't lose sight of the purpose of the meeting
So many candidates show up to a breakfast interview all excited about what they'll order or getting to try out a new restaurant. Some completely lose track of why they're there. They also get lulled into thinking this is a "casual interview." Although I agree some interviews are more comfortable than others based on the interviewers, there is no such thing as a casual interview. Either you're interviewing for an open position or not. If you are, it's "all business."
Don't come hungry
When invited to a mealtime interview, don't come hungry. In the majority of cases, you'll be doing most of the talking. With that in mind, you don't want to have a nice hot plate of food cooling right in front of you as you share your life history. At some point, the interviewer might notice you haven't taken a bite and encourage you to do so. And then promptly ask you a question while your mouth is full. I recommend ordering items that are not cooked (fruit, yogurt, salads) and in small portions. Quiet food is better than crunchy, loud food, too.
Some interviewers might judge you based on what you order. It's human nature. Ordering a huge meal full of unhealthy foods might send a signal that you live an unhealthy lifestyle. Sure, that is your personal business, but who wants to raise concern that you might be going on doctor appointments or taking leave of absence due to illness or worse?
Be neat and polite
Never order finger food (hamburgers, ribs) or items with lots of sauce (spaghetti): It's a recipe for disaster (pun intended) to end up with greasy hands or a stained shirt. For some roles, seeing if you can take clients or vendors to lunch without embarrassing yourself is part of the interview. Along the same lines, know basic dining etiquette. It's always good to know the bread plate is on your left and the water glass is on your right.
Stay away from alcohol
It might be common-sense to steer clear of the lunchtime beer. But when everyone else is ordering a beer with lunch, it may seem acceptable for you to do the same. However, you're the one interviewing -- you're the one who has to stay sharp. If you're concerned they will think you're a bore or not one of the gang, you can say, "If I were not the interviewee, I'd gladly join you." If you don't drink alcohol at all, simply say, "I'm not up for a beer right now, thanks."
You are not there to eat a large, fancy meal. Focus on the interview. The one good thing about having a cup of coffee or glass of water nearby: You can be taking a sip as they're asking a question that requires more time to think of the best answer. Sometimes this interview format works to your advantage.
And for goodness sakes, listen to your mother: Swallow your food before responding to the next question.
Next: Now That You Know How to Handle a Lunch Interview, Find Out What to Do Before and After
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