The Disturbing American Practice of Doggie Bags

Written in New Jersey, Saturday

Q:  What do you call leftover food that started on the plate; sat there while you talked and ate; was then put into a container — out of sight in the kitchen, or at your table, in front of other diners – then continued to fester on the table, or inside a purse, during dessert and coffee; was taken to the car or train; transported home; and brought inside to be saved and eaten at a later time?

A:  A doggie bag.

Only in America

I’ve traveled in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and the U.S.  This is the only country in which the practice of doggie bags is rampant.  In two trips this year, we have seen Americans asking for and taking doggie bags from informal diners, mid-range burger and salad places, fancy restaurants, and a posh country club. 

I’ve written previously about U.S. portion sizes, which are often so big they are unhealthy.

Health and Hygiene

On a practical level, putting remnants of a meal into a bag or container and letting it sit unrefrigerated for an extended time is not healthy or hygienic.  Taking it home is not only a seedy practice, it’s also one that could result in anything from an upset stomach to a bacterial infection.

From an individual weight standpoint, overeating contributes to obesity.

Where Are Doggie Bags Filled?

On this current trip, we’ve seen a new doggie bag phenomenon, no doubt related to the broader let-the-customer-do-the-work phenomenon (e.g. self check-in and check-out, salad bars, self-service gas stations):  bring the bag or container to the table, and let the customer scrape the desired food off the plate and into the bag.

In Washington, D.C. last week, we had just sat down at our table when a scene was played out next to us.  A man and a woman, both seriously overweight (my son’s term was ‘massive’), had finished eating their main course and the waitress brought them three doggie bag containers.  Three containers for two people!

Thus followed a lengthy production of these two large people filling the containers, passing plates back and forth and discussing what they were doing.  Then they sat back and had coffee and dessert while their containers sat on the table.

Is it any better when the plates are taken back to the kitchen and the waiter or waitress emerges with a full doggie bag?  I suspect restaurant owners and kitchen staff say, “let them do it themselves,” and maybe customers say, “I’d rather do it because then we only take exactly what we want.”

But as a customer sitting close by, I found the entire process disgusting, with no way to avoid seeing and hearing what was going on.  The last thing I want to experience when we go out to eat is having people next to me stuffing food into doggie bags

The Economy / Greed Issue

America is, even this week with its wild financial uncertainty, a prosperous nation.  When you go out to eat, the majority of portions served are huge, enough for two or more people, larger than anything we’ve seen in any other part of the world.

Yet there seems to be an attitude of, “I paid for it and I want every last scrap of it – in fact, I own it, and I have a right to it.”  People who can afford to eat out are by definition not desperate for every bit of food on the plate.

The idea of squeezing every morsel and taking it away in a doggie bag goes beyond getting good value; notwithstanding the health issue, the aura surrounding doggie bags is one of greed and gluttony.

The Idea of Going Out to Eat

I propose two new and radical ideas for Americans:

1.  It is NOT a sin to leave food on your plate.  I understand millions of us were raised with thrifty parents and the rule that all dinner, including vegetables, had to be eaten before dessert would be considered.  But portions were reasonable.  With current U.S. portion sizes, when the plate is overloaded, eating everything on it is piggish.    

2.  When you don’t eat everything on the plate, it is not only acceptable, it is better – more healthy, more polite, and more civilized – to just leave it and let it be taken away without expecting to see it again.  

Let the idea of going out to eat be just that:  go out to eat, eat a reasonable amount, enjoy the meal, and let the plate be taken away with whatever is left on it.      

The Name Says It All

Clive has observed that the U.S. has a doggie bag culture.  He says the name tells all:  it implies the food is only fit for a dog.  This was the original concept, but somewhere along the way, doggie bag contents became people food.

The root cause goes back to portion sizes and too much food on the plate.  Why do restaurants serve so much?  From a business standpoint, wasted food is reduced profit. 

If portion sizes were smaller and more moderate, there would be no need for doggie bags.  We’d all be healthier, too.

14 Responses

  1. Good grief, Carol. Don’t you have something better to write about? You are a fine writer; don’t waste your time writing such drivel. The bookstore series was top notch. It was descriptive, interesting, and very well written. Many of your travel pieces are clever, and your musings on family globalization are thoughtful and to the point. If you don’t like the idea of doggie bags, don’t ever use them. Ignore the folks who do. That’s it. Period.

  2. I’m now surprised, on trips back to the States, at how much food is served. It’s too easy for me to eat when it’s there before me.

  3. Thanks for the positive comments about my blog.

    I know all of my posts won’t please all people at all times. That’s the nature of blogging.

  4. I really don’t understand what is so disgusting about people who take the food home to eat later. It’s not wasteful, at least. I hardly EVER go out to eat, and when I do, I don’t usually finish all my meal. I take it home in a doggie bag and enjoy it immensely for lunch the next day. I’ve never gotten sick doing this.

    And I’m not anything close to overweight…I just like to avoid wasting food whenever possible.

  5. What a silly post! Doggie bags have been part of the American restaurant scene for generations and they aren’t around just because portions are too big. While it is absolutely true that many restaurants here have excessively large portions, even moderate or small portions are too large for people like me. I enjoy a meal out but often can’t eat an entire serving. If it’s a tasy meal, I get to enjoy it twice, one in the restaurant and again the next day for lunch. And, after 40 years or so of occasional doggie bags, I’ve never once gotten sick from them. Lighten up!!

  6. I can’t decide what is more ridiculous, the idea of writing a post of anti-take home box or the notion that its uncivilized to take home food from a restaurant. I guess most of us aren’t sophisticated enough to watch perfectly good go to waste. I’m sorry that you are so easily “disturbed” by the rest of our idea of putting aside food for later. I also want to know who asks, “Can I get a doggy bag?”.

  7. I agree with the above commenters. What a ridiculous post. The American custom of taking home a doggie bag is a way to avoid waste. The alternative is throwing away millions of pounds of perfectly good food every year. I also take issue with the idea that food “festers” on the table while you are taking a half hour to finish your coffee and dessert; by that logic the food is “festering” even while it’s sitting on your plate or (horrors!) is sitting in the chef’s kitchen, waiting for your dinner companions’ entrees to be ready and is perhaps rewarmed and left to sit several times before it arrives at your table.
    I agree that American portion sizes are too large, but I fail to see how not wasting food contributes to American obesity. But hey! You Australians are now catching up to us in that area. Perhaps you’ll let us know in a few years.

  8. I agree with the others, getting a doggy bag is not bad in any way. I do agree with you that American portions are too large, but that doesn’t mean you should waste food. If I take food home from the restaurant than it means I don’t need to get something that I otherwise would from the supermarket. How can you hate it when people take their food home, but not when they leave it on their plate to be thrown away?

  9. I’ve lived in Taiwan, Japan and China, and it’s totally normal for people to ask for a doggy bag in those countries.

  10. […] food waste from our friends down under. Then again…I think I disagree with every opinion in this post, written by an American ex-pat living in Australia, on doggie bags (except the ridiculousness of […]

  11. I agree that portions are too large here in the US.
    Restaurants probably perpetuate the practice because it’s now seen as “good value” (often, it actually IS better value to take food home instead of eating twice somewhere else with smaller portions) and it actually encourages people to eat at restaurants more often.

    However, I find your assumption that “people who can afford to eat out are by definition not desperate for every scrap” to be classist and uninformed, so I wrote this comment even though it is now 2012 and your post was written in 2008.

    What if a family has saved up all month so they can treat themselves to a restaurant meal? What about people who work two jobs to make do, and thus don’t have time to cook their own food? What about people who *can’t* afford to eat out that often, but they do it anyway to save face? (Low-income people often live outside their means as a form of denial or due to lack of education in money management, which perpetuates the problem.)

    What about people who are taking the meal to a housebound or sick individual so that that person can also enjoy the cuisine?

    Are these people to be begrudged for wanting to put leftover food to good use?

    I think at the time that your post was written, people still occasionally called take-out containers “doggy bags” to mask the shame of taking leftovers home. (It’s not for me… it’s for my dog.)

    However, in a country with ridiculously large portions, the take-home option allows people to spread out their food over several reasonable-sized meals. It became a sign of sanity rather than gluttony or desperation.

    The culture is different in the US. I understand that Australians still do not provide take-home containers; it would seem weird to you. I hope, however, that you can understand why take-home persists in the US.

    Here is how it works today: The majority of Americans, including servers and staff, look down on you a little if you leave half your food for the server to clean up. Half-eaten food is not eligible for donation to soup kitchens, etc. If it’s not eaten by the customers, it’s going in a landfill (probably not compost.)

    The implication of food left on the plate is in fact the opposite of your assumptions. If you leave a large amount of food on your plate, it is interpreted as, “I’m so well off that I can afford to eat at a restaurant whenever I want. I don’t need this perfectly good food. And nobody else deserves it, either.”

    However, we DO usually judge people if they pack up their leftovers to go and *then* order dessert. Unless it’s at the Cheesecake Factory, where the point is to eat cheesecake and a single salad serves 6 (really), this is generally a sign of gluttony.

    I think your real complaint is with the obese. And while people who are chronically overweight do look rather off-putting if they take home extra food after eating an already-oversized meal, that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from quietly wrapping up a meal for later.

    Please don’t classify all Americans as disturbed or disgusting for engaging in a practice that, while strange to you, is socially acceptable.

  12. Shirley, thanks for taking the time to comment and share these thought-provoking points.

    It’s been interesting to see the varied reactions to my 2008 post. I understand the take-home practice is part of the culture in so many parts of the US and appreciate your thoughts about the different reasons they may be requested. I’m afraid I still find the practice ‘distasteful’ (no pun intended) but appreciate your providing your perspective. Here’s hoping that maybe those portion sizes will get a bit smaller in the future!


  13. Oddly enough, while working in catering and a couple different restaurants, I discovered that the chefs and cooks were usually pretty flattered when customers asked to take the left overs home instead of just throwing it away. It was taken as a sign that they enjoyed the meal enough to feel that throwing it away wasn’t right. Sure, some said it ruined the food because it was no longer being served as it meant to be, but most either didn’t mind or took it as a compliment.

    I’m a bit confused about your complaint about letting the food sit in the car for an extended period of time, because I’ve never seen this done. In my experience, most people going to a restaurant and asking for a take home box aren’t planning on letting it sit in the car for an extended period of time. Unless you plan on going all over town or to the movies or something after you’ve eaten, leftovers sit in the car just long enough for you to take them home and put them in the fridge, so fifteen or twenty minutes. Which is probably less time than it was sitting on your plate at the restaurant.

    As for the health and hygiene point, I feel like this is ridiculous. A take home box is probably no more unsanitary than eating in the restaurant itself. Placing the food in a box, taking it home, and placing it in the fridge really isn’t worse than anything else that’s been done to the food by that point. It’s been pointed out before that taking food home is not against health regulations because it’s not really dangerous. It’s perfectly sanitary as long as you aren’t stupid and let it sit out for ages.

    Also, I’ve found that my friends from places like France, Oz, the UK, Italy, and other places where taking food home is considered socially unacceptable are far, far more likely to over eat in a restaurant than the ones who do take home food. They feel the need to eat as much as they possibly can so they waste the food. They eat until they’re ready to burst because they were taught not cleaning their plate is wasteful. The ones who took the food home usually stopped eating as soon as they felt satisfied rather than when they felt they had eaten a enough of the meal to justify the cost of the meal.

    Also, I’m rather appalled at the idea that you consider it more civilized to waste food. Not just a little bit of food either, but literal, tons of food. I read in an article from BBC that the typical restaurant in the UK throws away around 21 tons of food a year.

  14. […] bag” is thought to be a great idea for some who don’t want to waste food and otherwise disgusting for […]

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