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Is it okay to ask for a doggy bag in a restaurant?

Food for Thought: In an Irish context, let’s see if a straw poll on Instagram can enlighten us

Is it acceptable to bring leftovers home from restaurants? Is there a limit to such a request, be it the amount left on the plate or the type of food? What do restaurateurs make of the practice? Will it change because it requires – usually unsustainable – packaging to transport the food?

Is it okay to ask for a doggy bag? I’m not sure we’re even comfortable with the phrase. It all seems so American, and not part of our culture. But I have absolutely no issue with it, particularly if a meaty bone from a Delmonico steak is lurking on the plate in front of me, and I unashamedly say that it’s for me, not for our little mutt (who we sadly said goodbye to last year).

But where do you draw the line? What is acceptable to take away and what is not? I was brought up in an era when finishing everything on your plate was a rule, so I absolutely hate to see anything wasted. If food goes back to the kitchen in a restaurant, it hits the bin. It is waste.

There are academic papers dedicated to this subject, for instance: Take it or Leave It: How an Opt-out Strategy for Doggy Bags Affects Consumer Food Waste Behaviour and Restaurant Evaluations. The key focus is the waste issue and how existing social norms and feelings of shame can inhibit consumer behaviour. In a 2021 report, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that restaurants and food services in Ireland generated about 189,000 tonnes of food waste (25 per cent of total food wastage).

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But how much do you need to have leftover on your plate to justify a doggy bag request, and what happens when you get the food home? Are diners aware of the need to refrigerate foods such as fish and chicken within two hours, and to ensure that they are brought to a sufficient temperature when being reheated? The FSAI advises that food should be reheated once only and that the reheated temperature should be a minimum of 70 degrees at the core of the food.

There are Reddit threads dedicated to the subject of doggy bags, but for an Irish context, I reckoned an unscientific straw poll on Instagram could be enlightening.

With a few exceptions – “too embarrassed”; “it’s awkward” – feedback was positive, ranging from “if a customer has paid for a plate of food it’s their food and they can do as they wish with it”, to “I will never let food go in the bin, except maybe something like a dressed salad that will be soggy”.

The over-riding sentiment is that it is absolutely okay to ask to have your leftovers packed up to take away, although if it is a very cheffy dish on a tasting menu, it may not be suitable

Some diners even anticipate leftovers and come armed with their own plastic containers. The general consensus is that there has never been an issue, with kitchen staff happy to wrap leftovers in tinfoil, or put them in a takeaway container.

In general, experiences have been good, with higher-end establishments every bit as eager to please as more casual operations.

While most chefs responded that they would prefer to see the food taken away rather than thrown in food waste bins, and that it is an additional expense for the business to store and dispose of the food waste with a commercial waste collection service, reputational risk is an issue for some. Can a consumer be trusted to reheat the food correctly? One diner reported that they were refused a doggy bag “for health and safety” reasons.

The over-riding sentiment is that it is absolutely okay to ask to have your leftovers packed up to take away, although if it is a very cheffy dish on a tasting menu, it may not be suitable, and items such as soufflé and ice-cream just won’t work. Bringing in your own containers is appreciated, and encouraged by some restaurants, but not necessary. So go ahead: do your bit for sustainability and ask for a doggy bag.

One last piece of advice, courtesy of Google: “Even if you paid for your date’s dinner, don’t ask to take his or her leftovers home, as it will make you look like a cheapskate.”