The three second rule

In some very informal contexts, it’s considered acceptable to eat food that you dropped on the floor briefly. This is called the three second rule. Here’s some things I think I know about it:

Procedurally speaking:

  • You have to pick up the food right away. That is why it is called the three second rule.
  • (The reason this makes sense is that if you only dropped it briefly, you know what happened to it. So you know that nothing even grosser happened while you weren’t looking).
  • The three second rule only applies to your own food. You can’t pick up someone else’s dropped food and eat it. Eating other people’s food is generally considered gross, and combining that grossness with eating dropped food makes it extra gross.

The three second rule only applies when you can presume that the surface you dropped the food on didn’t contaminate it. For this reason:

  • The three second rule does not apply if there were obvious changes to the food (eg: lint stuck to it or it changed shape)
  • The three second rule only applies to food dropped on a dry and apparently-clean surface (eg: it would be considered gross to eat a piece of candy you dropped in a puddle or in the dirt)
  • The three-second rule only applies to dry food (eg: not a lollipop you’ve already started licking, and not an ice cream cone.)


  • The three second rule only applies in very informal contexts
  • It tends not to apply outdoors, although local customs vary
  • The three second rule is usually about snacking; at an actual meal it’s usually considered rude to pick up and eat dropped food
  • (This might not be the case at some summer camps)
  • It does not apply in restaurants or other public eating places, usually

A note about disability:

  • If people know that you are disabled, they might think it’s always unacceptable for you to rely on the three second rule
  • Even when you’re doing exactly the same thing as everyone else
  • Folks might see it as evidence that you’re gross and don’t understand anything about hygiene and manners
  • If people are reacting to you this way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing anything different from what others are doing
  • Or that you are failing to understand the rule, or that your disability is making it hard for you to understand the rule
  • It might just mean that people are unwilling to let you use the three second rule