How to Take Advantage of The Business Meal Tax Deduction

IRS clarifies that business meals are still deductible under the latest tax rules.

By , J.D.

For decades, taxpayers in business have been allowed to partly deduct the cost of meals with clients, customers, employees, and others. However, many feared that this beloved deduction was lost due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act ("TCJA") that went into effect on January 1, 2018.

The TCJA eliminated all business deductions for "entertainment, amusement, or recreation." (IRC Sec. 274(a)). This restriction on deductions included most things you'd think of as entertainment, such as entertaining at night clubs, cocktail lounges, theaters, country clubs, golf and athletic clubs, sporting events, and on hunting, fishing, or vacation trips. Many tax experts feared that, for these purposes, "entertainment" also included paying for food or beverages at restaurants or other places. If so, business-related meals would no longer be tax deductible—a huge change that would adversely affect restaurants and other businesses.

Fortunately for restaurants and business owners who like to eat in them, the tax deduction for business-related meals wasn't eliminated by the TCJA. The IRS has adopted regulations providing that most business-related food and beverage expenses remain deductible. (IRS Reg. 1.274-12).

Meals That Are Deductible Under IRS Regulations

Under the regulations, food and beverage costs are deductible as a business expense if:

  • the expense is not lavish or extravagant under the circumstances
  • the taxpayer, or an employee of the taxpayer, is present when the items are consumed, and
  • the food or beverages are provided to a business associate. (IRS Reg. 1.274-12(a)).

No Dollar Limit

Although the meal may not be "lavish or extravagant," there is no dollar limit on how much you can spend, nor are you barred from eating at very nice restaurants. You must use your common sense to determine if a meal is too lavish under the circumstances. In practice, the IRS will rarely second guess you on this, especially if you have good documentation for the expense.

You (or an Employee) Must Be Present at the Meal

You or an employee needs to be present at the meal to take this deduction. Moreover, the food or beverages must be furnished to a "business associate," which is any person you could reasonably expect to engage or deal with in the active conduct of your business. This includes current or prospective customers, clients, suppliers, employees, agents, partners, or professional advisers.

You Don't Have to Close a Deal

The IRS does not require that you actually close a deal or get some other specific business benefit to take this deduction.

What Can You Deduct?

You can deduct the cost of food and beverage expenses, including any delivery fees, tips, and sales tax.

Meal Deductions on Business Trips

If you go on a business trip with your family, you may deduct meals for yourself but not for your spouse or other family members. The only exception is if your spouse or other family member is your employee and needs to be on a business trip to help you.

Meals Combined with Entertainment

Special rules apply when food and beverages are provided during an entertainment activity to which you take a business associate. For these purposes, "entertainment" includes any activity generally considered to be entertainment, amusement, or recreation. This category includes entertaining at bars, theaters, country clubs, golf and athletic clubs, sporting events, and on hunting, fishing, vacation, and similar trips.

The cost of the entertainment activity itself isn't deductible. But food and beverages provided during an entertainment activity are deductible if purchased separately from the entertainment or listed separately on the receipt. (IRS Reg. 1.274-11),

Example: You treat a client to a baseball game, which you also attend, and pay for beers and food while at the game. You can deduct the cost because you paid for the beer and food separately. You can't deduct the cost of the tickets.

What if the cost of tickets for an entertainment event like a ball game includes the cost of food and beverages? The food and beverages aren't deductible unless separately listed on the bill or invoice. Entertainment facilities offering package deals including food and beverages will doubtless be happy to separately list their cost so you can get a tax deduction.

Limits on Business Meal Deduction

You may deduct 50% of the total cost of a business meal. For example, if a meal costs $100, you may deduct $50.

Recordkeeping Requirements

Historically, meal and beverage expenses have been subject to strict substantiation rules. These rules remain in effect for meals purchased while traveling on business. Whenever you incur an expense for business-related meals while traveling, you're supposed to document the following facts:

  • The date of the meal.
  • The amount (including tax and tip).
  • The place of the meal.
  • The business relationship. For example, the names and occupations of the people at the meal and any other information needed to establish their business relationship to you.

The IRS doesn't require that you keep receipts, canceled checks, credit card slips, or any other supporting documents for meal expenses that cost less than $75. However, you must still document the facts listed above.

Meals and Beverages You Buy Other Than While Traveling on Business

Meals and beverages you purchase other than while traveling on business are no longer subject to these strict substantiation rules. They are subject to the same recordkeeping rules as any business deduction. So, you're still supposed to have records of the amount and business purpose.

The Cohan Rule

If you lack adequate records, you can ask the IRS and/or Tax Court to permit you at least a partial deduction under the Cohan rule. Under this rule, taxpayers without all required records can estimate how much they have spent. The IRS can allow such taxpayers to deduct all or part of the estimated amount. But, you must provide at least some credible evidence to base this estimate, such as receipts, canceled checks, notes in your appointment book, or other records.

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