True Concessions: Our Movie-Snacking Behaviors, Exposed


Serious Eats staffers work very closely together, if not always in the same room—but, as in all healthy long-term relationships, we somehow still manage to surprise each other, in good ways, bad ways, and purely head-scratching ways. A very long and aggrieved Slack thread unspooled once we discovered some potentially embarrassing gaps in each other's eating histories: Until recently, Stella had never eaten a classic NYC bacon, egg, and cheese, and Niki was unclear on the proper use of a Panera-style bread bowl. The revelation that, despite repeated admonishments on this very site, only a few of us actually owned a mortar and pestle prompted similar outrage (from Kenji, at least).

One of the latest rabbit holes of confession and mock shaming we threw ourselves down revolved around our respective movie snacks of choice—not just the specific items we like to munch on in the theater, but where we get those snacks from, and whether we even snack at all. If that doesn't sound like something to get all worked up about—well, it isn't, but that's never stopped us before. It turns out that we, and perhaps all moviegoers, divide pretty neatly into four distinct camps, with very little crossover: those who buy the typical popcorn, boxed candy, and big sodas at the theater's concession stand; those who don't eat at the movies, period (really!); those who sneak in their own modest, easily hidden snacks; and those who make a point of smuggling in the biggest or messiest or otherwise most outlandish spreads they can muster. (Of course, "outlandish" is a relative term—one of us seemed surprised to learn that a bottle of Champagne qualified.) Since it's Oscar season, a time when lots of us try to cram in as many theater outings as possible, we figured we'd take the opportunity to share the shocking results of our internal survey.

The Sushi Smuggler

Growing up, I thought the phrase "dinner and a movie" was actually "dinner at the movies." Sure, we'd occasionally sneak in traditional snacks, like cheesy popcorn and cans of soda, but if the movie happened to coincide with a mealtime, we packed accordingly. My family's go-to movie theater dinner was sushi—something I didn't contemplate much at the time, but I now see it as a stroke of unparalleled genius on my parents' part. A prepackaged roll combo is, without doubt, the Platonic ideal of a stealthy movie theater meal.

Before you roll (no pun intended) your eyes, consider the following: It's compact, and thus easy to hide at the bottom of a purse; it's sufficiently odorless to avoid attracting attention or offending your neighbors' sensibilities; it is, if properly selected, devoid of any crunch, making it a virtually silent, interruption-free dining experience; the pieces are bite-size and therefore can be eaten with your hands, minimizing the potential mess of eating, say, noodles, in the dark; and it's a cinch to clean up and dispose of without attracting notice as you exit the theater. (I should add that I've also been known to bring along a cleverly concealed bottle of wine to wash things down.) My husband finds the whole sushi/sneaking-in-food thing gross and embarrassing, so these days we tend to go to theaters that actually serve all sorts of fancy food and alcoholic beverages above board. But, as the saying goes, when the cat's away, the mouse goes to the movies and stuffs her face with sushi. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, executive managing editor

The Cherry Picker

The rest of the Serious Eats team judged me pretty harshly on my pick, but I stand by it: fresh sweet cherries. Sure, they're messier than other snacks, you have to have somewhere (that isn't the theater floor) to spit out the pits, and they're not what one would consider an indulgent snack, but I'm hooked. A, they're delicious. B, the act of eating them takes some time, so they last longer than the popcorn you mindlessly shovel into your mouth. C, they're good for you! —Vicky Wasik, visual director

The Traditionalists

I'm not an avid movie theater–goer, but every so often, I will indulge in a little weekday-afternoon alone time in a near-empty, darkened room illuminated by brightly colored, flashing images, accompanied only by a bucket of ultra-fake-buttered and salted popcorn on one side and, on the other, a Coke in a giant plastic vessel that could fit a bathing infant. The expense I gladly eat, literally and financially, for the illicit thrill invoked by residual school-age guilt for "playing hooky" and doing something so luxurious and truant. Everyone's gotta get their kicks somehow, right? —Marissa Chen, office manager

I have to start by saying that I'm a pretty fast movie-snack eater—so much so that when I was little, my dad would ration my popcorn by putting a handful in my lap at a time. Otherwise, it would be gone a few minutes after the previews. That said, as an adult, I am 100% dedicated to Milk Duds, and, while I hate paying for them, I do anyway. I know my colleagues may look upon my choices with disdain, but alas: I buy my Milk Duds at the concession stand, like a total sucker. Then I eat them all before the movie even starts. —Ariel Kanter, marketing director

I believe the majority of the fun of going to the movies is to hit up the concession stand. I'm that person who arrives 30 minutes early to stock up on overpriced cardboard boxes of Mike and Ike and Sour Patch Kids—because I'm convinced they taste better out of a box. I’ve broken up with boyfriends solely because they took the thrifty route and chose to buy snacks at the bodega across the street instead. However, I’m a strict non-eater once the movie actually starts—the snacks are all about the pregame, to nosh on while watching the previews and side eye–ing anyone who tries to snag the seats in front of me. —Sohla El-Waylly, assistant culinary editor

I love movies, but more than that, I love the experience of going to the theater. It's not just that it offers me an excuse to opt out of social media and email for a few hours, nor is it really about the superior picture and sound (even a basic theater is better than my garage-turned-den). It's not just the excitement of seeing a brand-new release, and it's definitely not about sitting with fellow theater-goers (thanks, guy sitting next to me during Black Panther who felt compelled to read every single piece of on-screen text out loud). It's about one thing, or rather, one greasy bag of many things: movie theater popcorn. I'm attracted to the smell of diacetyl and coconut fat—the secret combination of artificial flavorings that produces that distinct movie theater aroma—like my daughter, Alicia, is attracted to the dogs' water bowl. I can make all the promises to myself I want about saving room for dinner, but those promises go out the window as soon as I step through those doors. My feet start heading for the concession stand, and the rest of my body has no choice but to follow.

This is not a secret. Movie theater popcorn is my go-to comfort food. That I get to watch a film every time I eat it is just the icing on the cake (or the diacetyl on the kernels, perhaps). —J. Kenji López-Alt, chief culinary consultant

The Cheapskates

Listen. Just last night, I didn't prepare before going to the movies. I am now out $13.95 for a medium popcorn and a bottle of water. This is the polar opposite of my M.O., which is to shamelessly sneak my own bag of popcorn and seltzer into the theater. My usual strategy is to pick a theater near a Trader Joe’s, so I can stop in and get a bag of cheddar cheese popcorn, or their insanely delicious Cornbread Crisps, and a Cranberry Clementine seltzer. And those crisps make a bomb vehicle for transporting your homemade chili to your mouth. Trust me. No local TJ's? A bag of Buncha Crunch and a Sprite from the drugstore will do. —Kristina Bornholtz, social media editor

Like all right-thinking Americans, I was raised to believe that sneaking food into the movies is as natural and healthy as a long walk in the sunshine, and that buying concessions at the theater is for chumps. It helps that I'm not wild about popcorn and instead gravitate toward Junior Mints, Combos, and Raisinets, all of which are conveniently available at the Dollar Tree that's a stone's throw from our default movie theater in Atlanta (and you know that location isn't an accident). And, while I've never ventured to smuggle anything more elaborate than a deli sandwich into an indoor cinema, no rules of restraint apply when we visit the Starlight Six Drive-In, a blessed local relic from another time, where summertime patrons regularly tote in full coolers of beer and Weber grills for a tailgate/movie night hybrid. —Miranda Kaplan, editor

You will rarely find me in a concession line: I'm too cheap for those overpriced goods, and too paranoid about candy-induced sugar highs. Not the biggest fan of popcorn, either; my junk food needs an edge. My ideal movie date involves a quick bodega trip beforehand, where I procure seltzer and—wait for it—pretzel M&M's. That is my junk-food staple. I tell myself they aren't as bad as regular M&M's, and they hit my requirement for a savory/sweet combo. The seltzer is key, too—like clockwork, a pending movie stirs a deep thirst in me for carbonated water. Sitting through a movie whilst thirsty and hungry is my personal version of a horror film. —Natalie Holt, video producer

I’ve discovered that using your kid as a candy mule is the white lie of retail economy. I wasn’t always like this. I used to be an honest, upstanding citizen, like you. For most of my adult life, I either purchased popcorn or, more often, didn’t eat at all. But, once we got married, my wife started sneaking candy into the theaters to quell her sweet tooth and—well, I’m not turning down Twizzlers. Who would?

When we first started bringing our daughter to the movies, we’d casually present the goods after the previews. Now that she’s older, she’s part of the scam/effort. We have a perfect record of sneaking in candy because, really, is the high school kid ripping stubs while he checks out Instagram going to stop a seven-year-old and poke her coat? I load up on a package of some chocolate-covered nut, my wife keeps it classic with M&M's, and my daughter’s the wild card—sometimes it’s gummy bears, or it could be Reese's Pieces. —Sal Vaglica, equipment editor

If it were just me, I wouldn't be eating anything. I'm too cheap to even glance at the outrageously priced concession stand items, and too lazy and bagless to smuggle snacks in. My significant other is often not bagless, however, so when we go together, we sneak all kinds of things in. My favorite is the massive, Costco-sized bag of M&M's: easy, clean, delicious. The most memorable snack we've ever brought was a full bag of Hurricane popcorn, which technically we smuggled all the way from Hawaii. The Li Hing–flavored version is vibrantly red, and we did not bring napkins, which made for a messy-fingered second half of the movie. Totally worth it, but word of advice: No matter what you bring, prep for the mess. —Tim Aikens, front-end developer

The Takeout Taker-Inner

When we were—well, I won’t say kids, since I was old enough to drive, but...younger than we are today, my brother and I were notorious for sneaking Chinese takeout into the movie theater. I’m talking pot stickers, egg rolls, spicy noodles, kung pao tofu, scallion pancakes, the works. We’d just stuff all the containers inside the gargantuan yellow puffer coat he had (ah, the '90s), using it like an insulated pizza-delivery bag. As it turns out, those iconic Chinese takeout containers are just the right size to nestle down into a movie theater cup holder, so we’d set up a little buffet using four consecutive arm rests. Chopsticks made it easy to eat in the dark, and we’d pass the containers between us during brightly lit scenes.

In warmer weather, lacking the proper outerwear for smuggling, we’d stick to popcorn (extra “butter,” please) and Milk Duds. —Stella Parks, pastry wizard

The Killjoys

If I could ban all eating in movie theaters, I would. I don't want to hear some sloppy-ass mofo smacking on popcorn in my ear when I'm trying to watch a movie. I'd give up all snacks for silence. All you movie-theater eaters can BURN IN HELL. (I have issues.) —Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director

I'm cheap. I also don't like candy. I'm not a big fan of popcorn, either. I smuggle in a water bottle, but then I drink from it only if I'm terribly, terribly parched, because the one thing I hate more than watching a movie in a packed theater is having to get up to go to the bathroom in a packed movie theater. Sometimes I'll bring with me a small, smooth stone, which I will suck on from time to time, and sometimes swallow, if the movie is going long and I'm really bored. I've had that stone for 10 years now. —Sho Spaeth, features editor

I'm almost always on the do-not-eat team—I'd rather spend my $20 on better food before or after the movie (I see you, Battery Park Shake Shack!). But occasionally, I succumb and buy popcorn and a Coca-Cola Classic. Ideally, this happens at a theater with self-service "butter," and, even more ideally, I'll get a cardboard tray to help me shift the popcorn around, so I can properly spread said butter to the deepest reaches of the bag. —Paul Cline, developer

I only snack on chips and anything crunchy, but the sound of me munching distracts me from the movie. So, no snacks. —Vivian Kong, product designer