New Thing: Pay For A Stranger’s Meal

Each year I make a list of new things I want to try. Then I do them and write about them. You can read about previous shenanigans here


If, for some unknown reason, you’ve been paying undue and devoted attention to the ‘New Things’ I plan to do (they’re over there in the sidebar) you might have noticed that ‘Pay for a stranger’s meal’ has been lurking there – unchecked off – for the last two or three years.In addition to being heartwarming, this endeavor has the potential to be incredibly awkward. How do you decide who you’re going to buy a meal for? What if they find out you bought it and then try to thank you? What if they’re offended? What if the waitress tells them what’s happening and they look up all confused and weirded out?

I mulled over this for quite a while. You can’t really look at someone in a restaurant and deduce the contents of their bank account and I assume people ordering the dinner special generally possess the means to pay for it themselves. But after talking to friends who have multiple young kiddos (and coming to understand the financial realities that accompany that) I decided that just about any parent accompanied by more than one child might appreciate a free meal.And where should I go? I needed to go somewhere I could buy a meal for myself and 3-5 other people without going totally bankrupt. And I didn’t want to go to my usual place because I’m already on an awkwardly first-name basis with the waitresses and I didn’t want them mentioning my stranger-meal-buying every time I was there, stuffing my face with rice noodles.Bangkok Thai Deli was the answer. Cheap. Delicious. Waitresses I didn’t know.

I enlisted my friend Meredith’s moral support and arrived at the restaurant completely wound up and riddled with nerves. Without exaggeration, I was more nervous about buying someone else’s meal than I was about drinking flaming sake made from fish fins.

Like, heart pumping, jittery eyed nervous.

Mere and I hunkered down and scoped out the restaurant. Lots of middle-aged couples and friend dates. I ordered a meal that was essentially fried tofu drenched in spicy peanut butter (amazing, obviously) and waited for a young family.

And then, ambling across the parking lot, came a young mom and dad, the cutest, most round-headed toddler, a sulky tween and a tiny little grandma.

Yes. Perfect.

We dawdled over our food for a bit longer (one can’t rush fried peanut butter tofu) and when our waitress brought over our check, I told her I’d also like to pay the check for the table with the cute baby.

“Do you know them?”
“Ummm, no.”
“Why do you want to pay for their meal?”
“I just think their baby is really cute?”
“And it would be a nice thing to do? And also it’s a secret. Please don’t tell them.”

Our waitress was 70% confused, 30% nonplussed, but eventually brought over their check and I paid it…and then practically ran out of the restaurant in a panic that they’d figure out what had happened and try to talk to us. I was so flustered I tried to unlock the wrong red hatchback in the parking lot!

Was it fun and rewarding and oddly nerve wracking? Yes.
Would I do it again? Prooooooobably not. If you’re someone who abides by a value set of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ you can probably help a lot more people for the same amount of money by giving food gift cards to people who are homeless or you know to be struggling.

But as a one-time adventure? Absolutely.  Even if the whole thing is so scary you try to get into the wrong car.

Have you ever bought a meal for a stranger? Or has a stranger ever bought yours? 

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  1. Kristen

    As a waitress I've had customers do this. It has always been a husband/ wife couple paying for a family with multiple kids. I always think it is super nice and would never tell who paid.

  2. brynndowning

    Good for you! This sounds like a lovely experience (if panic-inducing!)

  3. The Divine Miss Em

    I've done this at Starbucks. The woman in front of me paid for my drink & I continued down the line. I wonder how far it actually went.

  4. Olivia

    I always wanted to see someone pay for the car behind them when I worked in fast food and then it happened, on my very last day! I was so excited and happy lol. Probably happier than the people who got free tacos, they seemed a little weirded out.

    If you do it at a fast-food place/drive-through, it's super-easy for the staff to pull up the next check, you never get caught by the people you're helping, and it is really unlikely to break the bank. I haven't done it, but my mom has a few times.

  5. Brittany M

    Twice when I was at a starbucks someone had paid for my ticket in the drive-in, I really appreciated it. It made my day!

  6. Cat McBride

    Haha, this is hilarious, but also really sweet and adorable. Sometimes when we were going over a toll bridge when I was a kid, my dad would pay for the car behind us. A couple of times the car would catch up to us and wave and thank us afterwards. What a fun way to make someone's day!


  7. Laura Morris

    I have always wanted to do this when I am in line at drive-thru but I never get the courage!

  8. Jamillah

    I have bought small meals at like fast food joints for strangers, but never sneaky paying like you.Once a guy was asking for the 50 cents he needed to buy a meal from Dunkin Dounuts, so I just bought it for him. and as I was paying he stepped outside and cried. It was actually really sad, felt like someone hadn't done something nice for him in a long time.

    • Jemma

      This brought a tear to my eye.. :')

    • Michelle A Miller

      I would love it if someone would buy me and my daughters meal one time especially now cuz we’re starved

  9. Liz

    You probably made that family's day! I'd also have been mega-nervous about doing it… Xx

  10. Ashley

    related: have you read "You shall know our velocity!" by Dave Eggers?

  11. Manisha

    This has happened to me at the drive thru lane at Caribou Coffee. It was awesome because I had a new baby and was overly vigilant about what I was paying for. Then a year ago we stopped into Cracker Barrel in Nebraska (love the state, btw) and someone paid for the toys that my daughter had picked out. We had gathered them on the counter and headed to the bathroom. It was lovely but the thing is that the woman who bought them thought we couldn't afford them when in reality I didn't want to buy all of them for my daughter. I wanted to her to pick one. So it was nice but a little weird. I am woman of color and she made assumptions about me. Oh well, we thanked her anyway because regardless of the motives, it was a really nice gesture.

  12. Sky

    This is something I've always wanted to do – or at least the drive-through version many above have commented on. Just a nice way of paying it forward, I think.

  13. Jen

    When we were out for my bachelorette party (a rather sedate affair), a lovely biker couple paid for my dinner. They said that they had been happily married for 37 years and always enjoy seeing others about to take that step. It was surprising and very sweet.

  14. Kelsea Echo

    Aww this is so cute! I'd be terrified too. Haha. I bet they were pretty happy, though! 🙂

  15. Anonymous

    Once when we were having dinner at a nice restaurant, we overheard the couple next to us was celebrating their engagement. My husband had the waiter put their dessert on our check. They stopped by to thank us, and we got to congratulate them! Very positive experience all round.

  16. Anonymous

    This was great. I felt bummed that the server seemed to have had an uncomfortable reception to your generous act. I'm happy that you blessed that family and shared about it! This reminds me of one of my favorite moments in a favorite childhood book, Ramona Quimby Age 8 where at the end of the book, the family goes out to dinner on a rare occasion as money was tight, and a very sweet stranger that was admiring them during their dinner decides to secretly pay for their meal.

  17. Hannah at The Lemon Hive

    This made me laugh. I love that you were so anxious about it. Probs because I would be too. What if people thought it was odd?! But it's such a nice gesture. I'd love to try it too. I like this about the internet; the fact that you're able to read about people who do the things you want to do. It makes me feel less odd.

  18. antislice

    I was getting a smoothie at the JFK airport, and the woman behind me didn't have enough USD to pay for hers, so I paid.

    I'm now a firm believer in karma because I got bumped to first class on my flight after that.

  19. Chrystina Noel

    That's exactly how it would have gone if I had tried to do that, it's amazing how paranoid we can get trying to do something nice. I think if I ever do try it it will be a drive through-type situation. Seems mentally calmer.

  20. Jody

    For my 8th grade graduation dance, my boyfriend and I went to a local restaurant for dinner. My former neighbors happened to be in there at the time and they had dessert sent over to us. It's been 20+ years and I still remember that.


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