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 54.

    Pretty sure the doggy bag contents will go home, and after a day or two in the fridge, end up in the bin anyway. It's what I saw happen in the US.

    Thus shifting the landfill issue from commerce to household. If restaurants were serious they would compost and create swill bins to recycle their edible (and expensive) waste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I had never heard of asking for a doggy bag before I spent a year in Canada and found it was the norm. Restaurants also offered a take away service if you wanted to eat your favourite restaurant meal but in the comfort of your own home. Great idea.

    When I came back to the UK I tried asking in 3 different places but they stared and said they had no containers. I have been afraid to ask again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I think the campaigners would do better to target all food waste and give leftovers to the hungry. There was an article on the BBC only a few days ago about how many UK people regularly resort to food handouts.

    A while ago we went to an Indian restaurant and asked to take the leftovers home. Good manners involve a sense of social responsibility i.e. to not waste food while others are hungry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Not quite the same, but whenever we go round friends houses for dinner, I regularly ask to take my leftovers home, much to my wife's embarrassment. Not only that, if we're serrved gravy and there's some left I always ask for a spoon and finish it. Waste not want not I say! I think it's an excellent idea for this to be encouraged in restaurants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I am quite happy to ask for things "to go" - I'd rather do that than waste food that I've already paid for. However, what I WOULD like to see is restaurants serving smaller portions - a single main dish is usually far too large for me.

    Economically this would make more sense to the restaurant because I'd be more likely to order more courses, thereby spending more money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    How about asking for the cork to be put back into an unfinished bottle of wine?
    That usually produces a very hostile response.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    @Rigsby01 - steak and chips travel very well if wrapped in foil!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    so they scrap everything off your plate into a paper bag which you then carry home, dripping all over your clothes, to eat the next day? Disgusting!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    What a load of rubbish. Where do these so called reporters get their stories from? They must make it up for entertainment.
    Always ask for a db if necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    ...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.

    Then why don't you buy a couple of loose potatoes from time to time - most supermarkets and greengrocers have them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    We're repressed. Society has brought us up to feel guilty about wanting or asking for things. Another tool of the establishment in their path to total control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Nearly every restaurant around where I live is "All you can eat". Can I get a doggy bag and then fill up for the week??

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    We always ask for a takeway box/bag whenever we go to Nando's, Pizza express, local curry or any other restaurant. The point is not to waste. Now, since we all eat different sizes, what about quantity standardizing a serving: say I want a size A meal for me, size B for the wife and size C for the kids? This would minimize wastage and would make everyone happy - with a clean plate each!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    perhaps better portion control would be a good idea? And not the 'Can I make that large for you' culture we seem to have acquired from the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I have no compunction about asking for a doggy bag; after all, I paid for the food. However, I was told crisply by a maitre D in Aberdeen last year that a doggy bag was impossible as it was illegal under Food Safety regulations and the restaurant could be prosecuted.
    He believed it, too. Wouldn't budge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I have a friend who always asked for a doggy bag for leftovers whenever I am out for lunch or dinner with her. Her opinion is that since she paid for it, she should be allowed to take the rest away with her. I have never seen anyone refuse her request and I understand where she's coming from, but for some reason I always feel a bit embarrased when she does this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I worked in catering and the amount of waste is unbelievable, sickening at times. What's worse is that some in the industry are totally ambivalent to the problem. I've never understood people not taking doggy bags home, I mean you paid good money for that food, if you liked it why not have it tomorrow for lunch? Why the embarrassment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I think it's very odd to order something you can't eat in the first place. I never heard leave some for Mr manners always the converse of "eyes bigger than your stomach". I would never even think of asking for a doggy bag, what would i do with it? It's not enough for a meal, i wouldn't want the same thing twice in row, i dont have a pet, so it would just sit in the fridge. It's very odd to ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Serving smaller portions would reduce leftovers for normal eaters and help in the fight against obesity with the greedy. Reduced prices as well of course! Some types of meal could be done with a choice of portion size. Even if we accepted doggybags not all food is suitable for reheating or eating cold. Mind you, cold curry for breakfast is delicious....

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    When I pay for the food and can't eat it all in one sitting I will normally ask for a doggy bag. Sometimes, however, the food won't be any good later so then I'll leave it.

    But when I was younger I did wonder it it gave the impression I was poor and couldn't afford to waste it. Now I see it as a sign I enjoyed the food and want to take the rest home to enjoy it again later.


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