I am looking for a verb that means to pick small portions of food usually stealthily before it is served for everyone especially from the main plate. I believe it can be the same verb used when people insert their finger in a cake to taste some cream before a wish is made or candles are blown.

Here are some examples of how I would like to use it in a sentence:

  1. Kids! Do not [the verb] the food. Go to the dining room and wait at the table.
  2. Don't [the verb] the food with your dirty finger. Go wash your hands.
  3. He was [the verb] the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.
  • 16
    We usually say pick at. As in don't pick at the food!.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 14:22
  • Behave like a pig? Or if you want a transitive verb Don't pig at the food!
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 14:26
  • 4
    "Don't pick at your food. It'll never heal."
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 14:40
  • 1
    Graze was the first thing that came to mind for me, but that's already taken, so I'd go with nibble
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:02
  • Peck at is also used, in addition to pick at that Dan Bron pointed out. The analogy is to a bird, eating a tiny little bit at a time. (Also, in some accents, "pick" is pronounced like "peck.")
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:37

11 Answers 11


The first word that occurs to me is sample:

  • a small part or quantity intended to show what the whole is like.

  • try the qualities of (food or drink) by tasting it.

    • synonyms: try (out), taste, test, put to the test, experiment with; appraise, evaluate, test drive, check out

    • "we sampled the culinary offerings"

  • get a representative experience of.

Kids! Do not sample the food.

Don't sample the food with your dirty finger.

He was sampling the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.

  • 3
    Although it doesn’t inherently have the notion of “stealth” (which could explain the early drive-by down-vote), +1 for the first word that came to my mind. Too bad we can’t merge answers and get the OP to accept phrases, because “Don’t sneak samples of the food” would be a good one, imo.
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:09
  • All the current answers are good, but this is currently my favorite, because OP's question has examples where the food-taking is blatant, and [currently] all the other answers have an element of stealth or sneakiness about them.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:57
  • I may probably be wrong but reading the example sentences with "sample" sounds too formal. I like @DanBron's suggestion in comment - "pick at", which I feel would be the more colloquial/leisurely way of saying it.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:42
  • I don't know why this answer has so many votes. The very nature of someone (likely a child) taking food before they're allowed, or of someone telling them not to, is informal. As @BiscuitBoy says, "sample" is far too formal. No parent tells their kids to "stop sampling the food" The fact that your choice of word technically defines the situation doesn't mean it's an appropriate choice for the context. Additionally, there is nothing stealthy about "sampling".
    – BadHorsie
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 10:43
  • @BadHorsie It has upvotes presumably because people agree that it's the answer? I'm not trying to be flippant, but I would definitely tell kids to stop sampling food (well, I'd probably just let them do it, but that's another matter). I'm about as informal as they come, so maybe it's a regional thing? Maybe that's why people seem to agree with me? Also, OP's examples don't really include an element of sneakiness, despite their original description, so there's a bit of a mismatch there. Either way thanks for the input, but I think the formality might be regional or cultural? Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 13:00

My parents (both of whom were US-born with roots in the Midwest) would use snitch for exactly this purpose:

To steal (something, usually something of little value); pilfer: snitched a cookie from the counter. (Free Dictionary)

However, the other usage of the word (to inform or tattle on someone) is probably much more common these days, so using "snitch" in this way may cause confusion in the reader/listener.

Other possible alternatives are pilfer and filch, though in my mind both of these have more of a sense of criminality than "snitch" does.


I don't believe a specific word exists but what comes to mind is filch See the Merriam Webster example

too hungry to wait until the party had started, he filched a cookie from the buffet table when no one was looking

It fits your examples 1) and 3) but I'm less comfortable with 2). There I believe grab or grab at would be more appropriate since the emphasis is not on taking sneakily but on the hand contact.

  • That’s a good one, imo and here’s another definition of it that even uses “takes surreptitiously” [instead of/along with “steals,” which might be a bit too harsh in these contexts] and it uses “in small amounts,” which could arguably be slightly more fitting than 'Merriam’s' “something [that is] small” in these contexts (just the small crumbs of the cookie and not the whole small cookie itself).
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 16:57

Consider. sneak

To move, give, take, or put in a quiet, stealthy manner: sneak candy into one's mouth; sneaked a look at the grade sheet.

American Heritage Dictionary

Billy snuck a cookie from the dessert table Purdue OWL

In your examples,

Kids! Do not sneak samples of the food. Go to the dining room and wait at the table.

Don't sneak scraps of the food with your dirty fingers. Go wash your hands.

He was sneaking bits of the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.

  • 1
    I agree with sneak (as in sneak a bite), but sneak up on doesn't describe the act of taking or picking at food. And usually one does not sneak up on a cake, because a cake is inanimate. We typically reserve sneak up on for victims who themselves can catch us (if a third party can catch us in the act, we usually characterize that as simply sneaking).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:00
  • 3
    Unless the cake is a sentient being, I wouldn't worry too much about sneaking up on it, but sneaking bits of the cake is entirely plausible and commonly understood for the OP's meaning. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:01
  • +1 and please see my comment to @Kevin
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:12
  • 3
    The edit made it even weirder. I can't tell from your profile whether you're a native speaker or not, but if you are, would you actually say "Kids, don't sneak up on the food"? (And I don't mean in a joking way, or if you all lived on the savannah and subsisted on cagey antelope.) How does one even "sneak up on" food using "dirty fingers"? It doesn't make any sense.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:39
  • 3
    @Elian No, in "sneak up the food" it sounds like you're trying to use "up" as it is used in, e.g. "pull up" or "suck up [in a vacuum]" or "take up", but "sneak up" is a idiom with a fixed meaning. It means to stealthily approach a target, so it can't be used the way you're trying to use it. Your "sneaking bits of chicken" is perfectly apt, but I'd advise against trying to include any other forms, phrasal verbs, or sneak + preposition options in your answer. Sneak is a good answer, leave it at that.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:55

In my (extended) family we call this "grazing" -- may be idiomatic to us though!

eg. Stop grazing on the turkey!

  • 4
    Grazing was the first word that came to mind also, but it doesn't really have the connotation of picking at it before others have had a chance in our family. "We're not going to have a sit-down dinner tonight - we'll just graze on the left-overs from the party. Help yourself whenever you're hungry."
    – ColleenV
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:55

Not a single word -- I'm not convinced there is a single word -- but what occurs to me as the clearest and most precise phrase is stealing a bite.


One option in BrEng is snaffle. From Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

to take something ​quickly for yourself, in a way that ​prevents someone ​else from having or using it

In your examples:

  • Kids! Do not snaffle the food.
  • Don't snaffle the food with your dirty finger.
  • He was snaffling the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.

Admittedly, the second option doesn't feel particularly right to me, but generally it works.

Other options are nick or pinch. Particularly in BrEng.

Both have the same BrEng Informal definition:

to ​steal something

Again, these feel fine for 1. 2 doesn't really work however, and 3 works, but perhaps feels a little off:

  • Kids! Do not pinch/nick the food.
  • Don't pinch/nick the food with your dirty finger.
  • He was pinching/nicking the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.
  • 1
    Like "nick" and "pinch", "snaffle" is also much more common in British English than American English. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:31
  • @MichaelSeifert Thanks, I missed that in the definition. I've updated the answer to include that. Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 14:53
  • 1
    As an American, I would have had no idea what "snaffle" meant without reading this answer.
    – Joe
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:41

The word nosh could be used for these situations.

It really means to eat a snack, but its etymology derives from the German word naschen, which means to eat on the sly. Merriam-Webster

  1. Kids! Do not nosh the food. ...
  2. Don't nosh the food with your dirty finger. ...
  3. He was noshing the chicken nuggets before everyone came to the table.
  • In British English, there is a slang usage of nosh to mean fellatio, but the context here is clearly food.
    – jxh
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 0:41

Not food related but perhaps these convey the idea ...

to nab

 to take or get (something) quickly and often in a way that is clever or rude. e.g. We nabbed seats in the front row of the theater. -- http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nab


to pilfer

to steal; especially :  to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again -- http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilfer


Another term for this is "cherry-pick" (not sure if that counts as a single word or not) - it carries a sense of "taking the best parts out of the collection".

Merriam-Webster; metaphorical usage in git

  • Hi rosuav, welcome to EL&U and thanks for your first answer! It's pretty good as first answers go, but usually we ask that people answering questions include links and references to support their assertions: could you please edit in a link to a formal definition of this term? You're more likely to get upvotes from other members if you can back up your answers. - From Review Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 8:37
  • Thanks for the comment, John; I've added a Merriam-Webster link, and also a derivative usage from git, as analogous usage implies that the expression is meaningful enough to build on.
    – rosuav
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 19:16

In Italy (Naples at least) we have a work exactly for that: spizzicare

And according to wiktionary and WordReference, it translates to nibble or peck at

  • Can you please comment downvotes?
    – algiogia
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 15:51
  • Not my downvote, but to nibble is to take little bites and to peck at means to take small bits at a time (as though you're not very hungry), but neither is stealthy or involves taking bits from the main serving plate before the meal is served.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 19:57

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