Doggy bag: Why are the British too embarrassed to ask?

Doggy bags

Doggy bags are part and parcel of eating out in the US. But many British diners struggle with the idea of asking to take their leftovers home, something campaigners want to change.

In the UK, it is a rarely heard request. And if one does have the audacity to ask for a doggy bag, it will probably be uttered under one's breath or behind one's hand.

There is no such shame attached to doggy bags in the US, where they are overtly offered on a menu or freely handed out by the waiting staff as part of the service.

While the larger portions in the US may feed the need for more doggy bags, Britons are reluctant to ask for one regardless of how much is left on their plate.

A recent survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) showed 25% of diners were too embarrassed to ask for boxes, with 24% wrongly believing they were against health and safety policies.

Start Quote

We Americans don't have the airs and graces of Europeans”

End Quote Charlie Wolf American broadcaster

The organisation is launching a new campaign to embolden diners to ask for doggy bags and to encourage restaurants to make patrons feel more comfortable about it.

The Too Good to Waste initiative will see 25,000 biodegradable boxes dispatched to about 50 participating restaurants in London, including the Michelin-starred Quilon and chains including Wahaca and Leon.

They are hoping it will help reduce the amount of waste in the UK - a typical restaurant annually throws away 21 tonnes of food, the weight of three double decker buses, according to the government's advisory body Wrap.

But old habits die hard and this is not the first time such a campaign has tried to convert Britons to the doggy bag culture.

In 2009, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was one of several high-profile chefs who backed a supermarket's call for doggy bags to become the norm. But the campaigners have faced an uphill struggle.

Dining out in the UK has certainly become more and more common for many people. It was once the preserve of the well-to-do but more people started to eat away from home in the 1960s with the emergence of French bistros and Italian trattorias.

Food waste in the UK

Food waste
  • 21 tonnes - the weight of three double decker buses is wasted in food per restaurant per year
  • 30% of this comes directly off diners' plates
  • £724m could be saved by the food industry each year through recycling and food waste prevention
  • 10% of all produce caterers buy is thrown away

Source: Wrap

An explosion of restaurants coincided with a rise in spending power, and Britons are now spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out.

Even fine dining has been opened up to the masses. But while eating out has lost some of its mystique, starched-white tablecloths, over-attentive staff and a confusing canteen of cutlery can still make some people shift uncomfortably in their seats.

In 1981, 957 million meals were served in restaurants and pubs in the UK whereas an estimated 1,661 million will be dished out this year, according to food consultancy Horizons.

So if more and more Britons are eating out, why is there still a mental block when it comes to doggy bags?

Food historian Colin Spencer, who has never asked for a doggy bag, says it is not part of the culture.

"It's a shyness about appearing to be greedy. There's a kind of nervousness which I think is quite natural."

In addition, waste has been a symbol of wealth and nobility throughout history.

"The waste went to feed others. It went to feed the kitchen staff and in the Middle Ages, what was left after the kitchen staff went to the poor and beggars waiting in the courtyard," he says.

Start Quote

Although it may be a reflection of the fact you obviously thoroughly enjoyed the dish, scraping the last morsel from the plate is unnecessary”

End Quote Liz Brewer Etiquette expert

"I think that feeling is still there, so even though you are out in a restaurant there's partly that feeling that 'I can afford to do this, I don't have to clean my plate'".

Paul Buckley, senior lecturer of consumer psychology at Cardiff School of Management, says doggy bags have an image problem in the UK.

"What others think and social conformity puts pressure on you as a customer. Anything they think poor people may do, they won't.

"Others will ask for doggy bags and make excuses. They might want the thing to eat at home the following day but will say, 'It's only for the cat'."

This reluctance may boil down to the British desire not to create a fuss, or it could be the belief that it is good manners to leave a few morsels on your plate.

Liz Brewer, etiquette expert from TV series Ladette to Lady, recalls being told as a child to leave some food for "Mr Manners".

"Although it may be a reflection of the fact you obviously thoroughly enjoyed the dish, scraping the last morsel from the plate is unnecessary."

However, modern-day etiquette should involve a good dose of common sense.

"Common sense should tell them that food should not be wasted and that asking for a doggy bag makes sense," Brewer notes.

The word doggy bag originated in the US and American-born London-based broadcaster Charlie Wolf says they are socially accepted in his native country.

Eating out

  • There were 2077 million meals eaten out in 2010 at restaurants, take-aways, pubs and hotels
  • £33.5bn was spent on food and drink in 2010
  • 29% of all food and drink consumed is from dining out

Source: Horizons

"We Americans don't have the airs and graces of Europeans. Americans are a bit more of the people, more pedestrian. There's nothing embarrassing about asking for a doggy bag.

"We don't want to see waste. There's a sense of working hard for your money and wanting value for your dollar."

He recalls how his mother used to make an omelette with the remains of meals from their favourite Chinese restaurant. She also used to bring any uneaten bread rolls home.

"We were upper middle class. My parents came through the Depression and I'm sure that had a bearing even when they became successful."

Spencer's background is middle class but his parents didn't eat out when he was growing up. His recalls how his spinster aunt was too worried about the cutlery etiquette to dine out.

Take-home boxes Take-home boxes have yet to take off in the UK

"You didn't eat out in the 40s and 50s and it only really began to change in the 60s and only very slowly."

Despite the long-term growth of the eating-out sector in the UK, it is currently battling against a volatile economy and changes in disposable incomes, according to the latest statistics from retail analysts Mintel.

Their surveys from May suggest a third of diners have reduced their expenditure on eating out per month or reduced the frequency of visits. More than a fifth of those who have cut back order tap water, not bottled water.

So perhaps the economic climate might force Britons into trying out take-home boxes, which many restaurants already offer.

Japanese chain Wagamama offers doggy bags at all 73 of their restaurants if diners request one, and even the more upmarket restaurants are willing to assist.

Even a swanky restaurant like the three-Michelin star Waterside Inn in Bray would give you a bag, although it admits it has never actually had such a request.

"If they did ask, the customer comes first so we would do it," says Gina Curtis, secretary to chef Alain Roux.

"I don't think they will ever ask, they have too much money to ask."

It is debatable whether the various British cultural attitudes to doggy bags will be overcome to help reduce the amount of food thrown away.

But Buckley compares the situation to the public smoking ban and says people's perceptions can change, albeit very slowly.

"To go against the norm in society takes a lot of confidence. There are unwritten rules in society people will follow automatically. When these adapt, so do people's actions."

Though perhaps all it needs is a name change. In Britain, a doggy bag can be confused with a pooper-scooper, which deals with a different kind of waste altogether.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I am not one to waste food or leave much on the plate. If there is any leftovers, its usually leftover for a reason other than hunger.

    Having said that, as much as I would like to relive The Red Lions Sunday Roast Beef (swimming in gravy) the next day - I dont think it would travel well in a bag, of all things! Why not a doggy box?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I used to go to a local cafe where doggy bags were the norm. Anything you didn't eat got put in a box and brought back to your table. Being a student and this cafe not being the cheapest but having huge portions made this totally brilliant!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    You could do more to save wasted food by getting the supermarkets to pack food in reasonable size packs - I'd bet a considerable sum that leftover food in restaurants is orders of magnitude less than waste from food bought in supermarkets. Matthew 7 and all that. I haven't eaten potatoes in ages cos I can't buy a small enough bag that won't sprout before I eat them because they've been washed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Given the reports about obesity in this country wouldn't it be a better solution to make the portions a bit smaller. No need for a doggy bag and less waste. The restaurants could then charge a bit less for a meal and for the same amount of outlay attract more customers with more revenue. Let's be honest, even if you had one would you really do anything other than throw it away when you got home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I doggy bag most of the time, especially if the food is good; otherwise I won't bother. I try to eat the same portion as I would if I were having a meal at home in order to avoid overeating and as I generally find restaurant portions to be slightly larger than what I usually cook for myself, I often end-up not finishing my food in restaurants. Also, doggy bags can save cooking for the next meal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    #2 The problem with not serving such large portions is that some of us actually like large portions. Different people like to eat different amounts. If I got a small portion in a restaurant I would not be happy at all. I like to eat properly. On the other hand, some people go to a restaurant and pick at their food like a bird. We're all different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A doctor friend of mine says it's an insult to the hungry people in the world when we waste food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.


    The reason Americans have doggie bags is because there is too much food on the plate. Often US restaurants provide enough for two meals. So people take them home and microwave them.

    Lets instead deal with waste by providing appropriate sized meals, and offering extra food to diners if they feel hungry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I have asked for a 'doggy bag' in many restaurants in Northern Ireland the past, and would not be embarrassed to ask, but have been told that for health and safety reasons, these are not provided. Normally I would have wanted the leftovers for my cat. I have been told that restaurants are opposed to giving my leftovers to me in case I make a claim for food poisoning!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Following on from my Pizza hut tale I believe the response to me asking to take the rest home was something along the lines of "yes of course" with a smile from the waitress.

    Just do it, don't be afraid of a non existent problem. The diners on the next table probably want to do the same but are waiting for someone else to ask first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I regularly ask for a doggy bag but only ever for pizza, chinese or indian. I don't think the portions in this country are big enough to need one anywhere else!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Ha. When do you ever get enough on your plate in a British restaurant to warrant taking any left-overs home ? Portions here are nowhere near the size they are in the States. This whole article is rendered pointless by this fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I'm about as likely to ask for a 'doggy bag' as I am to voluntarily go to see a psychologist. I've never done either. I have to be pushed very hard to complain, and I queue up politely. I am, in a word, British.

    Surely the correct answer to all that food waste is not to serve such large portions in the first place?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have done it in Pizza hut before with a particularly large pizza but to be honest I have never had the need in a normal restaurant.

    Portions generally aren't that large so there is never anything left on my plate. However having said that I certainly wouldn't be embarrassed about asking to take it home, after all I paid for the food so I want to eat it!


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