Eating out: why don’t we take home leftovers?

Features Food and Drink

Since returning from Canada in January, I can’t stop noticing one uniquely British taboo. Eating in restaurants, my family will sneakily ninja leftover food and bread rolls into bags under the table rather than face the apparent shame of taking home the food they’ve paid for. On the way to a play last weekend, one friend I was dining out with gathered everyone’s leftovers onto her plate, making a second meal, and forced herself to eat them so as to not waste food. When I suggested she ask to take the leftovers home, she nodded at me in approval of this novel idea but continued to eat. When I told my family that we could probably ask the restaurant for a better bag, they dismissed

In a society that’s increasingly eco-aware and not yet out of recession, it seems strange that although we pack up leftovers at home for the next day and have food waste bins in our kitchens, we still refuse to adopt take-home boxes and doggy bags when we eat out. The Sustainable Restaurant Association’s 2011 campaign of dispatching biodegradable boxes to restaurants failed to change this. At the time, the BBC reported that ‘a typical restaurant annually throws away 21 tonnes of food’ but public opinion seems to remain that asking to take home leftovers is simply not done.

In Canada, I went to a family restaurant with my Canadian girlfriend and her parents for New Year’s Eve. Near the end of our meal, the waitress – as standard procedure – asked if anyone would like a take-home box. I was too shocked to say yes: I had already committed myself to stuffing my stomach to the point of pain so that I wouldn’t waste the food her parents were paying for. It was a task of physical endurance; that I would carry on to the bitter end. She, meanwhile, said yes and proceeded to put her leftovers into a takeaway box for the next day. ‘See, it’s totally normal here,’ she said.

On the waitress’s return, I summoned my courage and asked those forbidden words: could I have a take-home box, please? She said sure, grabbed me one, and in a moment of culinary epiphany I put the rest of my meal into the box. The next day we microwaved it for lunch and added extra parmesan. Admittedly, in the car ride home my girlfriend’s box leaked sauce onto her coat. Then her leftovers ended up tasting disgusting so she put them in the bin. But mine were delicious.

When I told her about this foreign phenomenon: a country where servers don’t ask you if you’d like a take-home box and customers don’t ask for one, she was confused. ‘But why?’ she asked. I didn’t know, it just wasn’t done. If you’ve barely touched your plate, staff will take away your food with no question but an ‘Anything else for you?’It seems that while we have adopted America’s taste for fast food, this is one habit we haven’t adopted. Regardless of your opinion on the effect fast food has had on the UK, reducing food waste is one attitude which just doesn’t make sense to not have.

So why do we continue to stuff ourselves to bursting before inevitably sacrificing the rest of our plate? Is it a desire to not appear greedy? A classist attempt to not appear poor, that wasting food is a luxury we can afford? For me, as illogical as it sounds, the thought never even occurred to me that asking to take home leftovers was an option.

But in every way – saving money, reducing waste and not having to cook the next day – taking home leftovers is a good idea. So the next time you eat out and you’re just too full, why not be more American and ask for a doggy bag?

IMAGE/ US Department of Agriculture


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