Do you live out in the country planning a trip to the big city?
Do you live in the Southwest and are planning a first-time trip to the East Coast?
Are you visiting the US for the first time?
Eating your way around America can be fun, but knowing what to expect is helpful.
- What kind of cuisine can I expect?
- What dining options do I have?
- How do I find the best places to eat?
- Is there a specific dining etiquette?
- Are children welcome?
- Special diets
What kind of cuisine can I expect?
What exactly do Americans eat? The simple answer to that is EVERYTHING!
The United States is composed of a diverse cultural heritage and the food you find on your travels will reflect that.
Fast food and chain restaurants are a unifying element across every state.
If you want to eat the same hamburger and french fries in California that you usually eat in Ohio then undoubtedly, this is your safest bet.
The US is a big country and you will find different regional specialties depending on where you are traveling. For example, low-country southern food in the Southeast and Tex-Mex in the Southwest.
In addition to the regional specialties, you’ll easily find multiple ethnic cuisines.
What dining options do I have?
Your options for eating in the US are endless.
Food is readily available everywhere.
There are many types of restaurants including fast food and sit-down.
In large urban locations, food can be available 24-hours 7-days a week.
In more suburban and rural locations, the days and hours open may be limited.
It is not uncommon for a business to be closed one or 2 days a week. Sunday or Monday seems to be the days when many restaurants are closed.
Americans love the convenience of takeaway food. When traveling you sometimes just don’t want to take the time out of your vacation itinerary to sit down at a restaurant.
Pizza, Chinese food, and tacos are just a few favorites that are commonly ordered to go.
Roadside stands, kiosks and food trucks are also great options for takeaway food often with a local flavor.
Grocery stores and markets in the US have just about anything a traveler could want to eat. Not to mention, they are great for eating on a budget when traveling.
Additionally, Opening hours may be earlier or later than restaurants and therefore more accommodating to a sightseeing schedule. You’re sure to find something for that picky eater as well.
Many restaurants, especially those that offer takeaway, also provide delivery to hotels and vacation homes.
Food delivery apps are common everywhere.
Some hotels still offer room service when there is a restaurant in-house.
How to find a great place to eat
When I travel around the country I love to ask locals where the best places to eat are.
I might ask the cab driver or the rental car agent when I arrive at my destination.
On road trips, I often ask for recommendations at the hotel desk.
People love to talk about their favorite food spots.
Google Maps is great for showing you what’s nearby and offering online reviews.
I do my best to research before I travel to see if there is a regional specialty I should keep my eyes open for. I love to try dishes that an area is known for and I can’t get anywhere else.
Typical dining etiquette in the U.S.
No one wants to be that person. You know who I mean. The person who unknowingly comes across as rude or insensitive because they just didn’t understand the cultural norm.
How to Dress
For the most part, eating in America is a pretty casual affair.
Throughout the country, there are many upscale and “special occasion” restaurants where people dress a little more formally to eat out but that is the minority.
Just dress neatly, wear shoes and a shirt, and you will be perfectly comfortable wherever you go.
If you are going to an eat-in restaurant you may need a reservation, especially in the evening.
This is common in popular tourist areas during busy seasons and in heavily populated cities.
Check the restaurant’s website or just call in advance in advance to be sure.
Table manners generally include placing a napkin on your lap, keeping your elbows off the table, and not talking with food in your mouth.
People will wait until everyone is served before starting to eat.
Eating in America as a foreigner
As an international traveler navigating American food culture may be a whole new experience.
If you are visiting American friends or are in the country for the first time you will notice that everyone eats quickly here.
People like to get their meal right away, eat, and be on their way.
In addition to this, servers may approach you several times during your meal. They will ask if everything is okay and inquire as to whether you need anything. This is typical and considered good service.
Food portions can be large, especially in chain restaurants and diners. It is not rude to ask for a box at the end of your meal to take the leftovers with you.
It’s a practical way to save money on food while traveling.
Even if you are on a road trip you can pack it in a cooler and reheat it later. Most hotels and vacation homes will have a microwave.
The bill will be brought to you automatically, but don’t let it make you feel rushed, you can leave the table at your leisure.
Tipping is expected.
15- 20% tipping for good service is the norm. Servers in the U.S. make far below the minimum wage and tips are a vital part of their income.
Dining with children
Children are welcome just about everywhere.
Many places will offer dedicated menus that have kid-friendly meals, reduced prices, and smaller portions.
Some exceptions might be late-night venues or fine dining establishments. . If you suspect they may not be child-friendly then it’s always good to check in advance.
What about special diets?
If you have any dietary restrictions then traveling can often feel frustrating and stressful.
Although, awareness of this public need seems to be increasing over the years.
More and more menus are indicating such things as allergens and ingredients.
Often just asking the waitstaff about accommodating the diet is all you need to do to ensure your meal is appropriate.
Overall, the wide variety and availability of food in America makes it easy to accommodate almost any diet.
With this in mind, people with medical conditions, food intolerances, and lifestyle choices can usually find something to fit their needs.
However, you may want to pack a snack or two for that “just in case” moment when nothing else seems available.
Chances are you won’t need it, but it can help relieve some worry knowing you have a “backup meal” in the event nothing suits you.
America offers a huge variety of dining options and experiences.
Learning the food culture firsthand is part of the fun of traveling!
Dining Culture: Guide to Eating Out in the United States. https://sites.uci.edu/graduateinterconnect/2019/09/26/eating-out-dining-culture/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2022.
Dining Etiquette | Kent State University. https://www.kent.edu/career/dining-etiquette. Accessed 10 Nov. 2022.
Funk, Cary. “1. Public Views about Americans’ Eating Habits.” Pew Research Center Science & Society, 1 Dec. 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/public-views-about-americans-eating-habits/.
“United States Dining Etiquette.” Etiquette Scholar, https://www.etiquettescholar.com/dining_etiquette/table-etiquette/na_table_manners/american.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 20