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 74.

    I can see the arguments here, regarding the need to reduce portion sizes, (though I've never personally seen it as a problem), but if you pay for it, it's yours. It should be up to whoever was eating the food...If you take it home and eat it, great! If you forget or don't fancy it the next day. you can compost it yourself, or put in your food waste. Seems silly to me to not even have the option...

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Idiots - it's *called* a doggy bag, it isn't just a paper bag with food scraped in dripping with gravy - it's usually a food box as you might get from a chippy or canteen

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Last year i went for a pub lunch on the Thames with my friend. We both had a roast dinner, and our plates were so huge we could only eat half the meal.

    We asked for a doggy bag and we were told that we wouldn't be allowed to take the food home, because once it left the pub they wouldn't know how we stored it, or what we did with it, and they didn't want to be responsible if we got sick!??!! crazy

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    49. Philip99a

    In Weatherspoons and ordered a decently priced bottle of wine. When I asked if I could have a top to take it home to finish, was told it was illegal. Absolutely not allowed. Have to drain the bottle or leave the contents.

    Not really sure if this is the law or the bar staff interpretation. Maybe other Weatherspoon customers could tell us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Earlier this year a group of us went to a hotel for afternoon tea. There were quite a few cakes left over, so some of the group asked the waiter for foil to wrap them up and take them home instead of wasting them. The response? "Not unless you sign a disclaimer first!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Pizza Hut often offer to box up any remaining food without having to be asked. My kids don't let it go to waste.

    If you have paid for the food, take it home with you. It only goes in the bin at the restaurant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I will never do this whilst it is routinely referred to as a Doggy Bag or a Left-overs box (vile). Also, I really can't see how there is no health issue involved here. Would be interesting to see this trend extend to the eat-all-you-like buffet venues!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I paid for it - I'm taking whatever is left home to finish another time. It would be wasteful and foolish not to do so. Can't understand why anyone would be embarrassed to take what they rightly own home with them. If a restaurant makes a fuss about it, simply vote with your wallet and go elsewhere in future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Presumably if you ask for a doggy bag in Wales you'll have to pay 5p for it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The food is the cheapest part of selling a meal. Most run of the mill restaurants and gastropubs I have used recently would not warrant a doggy bag . There are too many places that look as if they should be fine that sell poor food straight from cash and carry freezers at close to good restaurant prices doing business on the back of an eating as a leisure pursuit craze led in part by the BBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    It's not that I would be embarrassed to ask for a "doggy bag" I simply wouldn't order what I couldn't eat. That kind of behaviour is the reason why there are so many grossly fat people about. I did say FAT!!!! It's gluttony nothing more nothing less. And of course there are even more fat folk in the US where they are happy to ask for a doggy bag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    My wife and I rarely ever leave enough on the plate to bother getting a doggy bag, we order what we can finish and enjoy.
    But if we are eating something like Chinese/Pizza, or my sons leave food I will ask for it 'to go' and so far I've had no refusals.
    I've known millionaires who will take leftovers back home, its the middle class who care about the look and labels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Less than a month ago I ordered a salad in a local restaurant.
    Although absolutely delicious it was enormous.
    Having been to the US and more than used to asking for a box, I asked for a doggy bag to take away the half that I couldn't manage.
    The waitress was quite obliging but the 'bag' consisted of an old, cleaned, catering size margarine tub!
    I guess that they'd never had anyone ask before

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    My husband recently took me to the most obscenely expensive restaurant I'd ever been to and we had vast quantities of totally delicious steak. There was far too much for us but asking for a doggy bag was something I would never, ever have done in such a smart setting - but the waiter asked me if I would like one. I was amazed and delighted and the gorgeous steak lived on for two more dinners!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Ah bless ya hearts, all you literal people out there. Just to clarify "Doggy Bag" is a term not a literal bag. In most cases a request of "can you wrap that for me to take home?" will provide you with a carton, a foil container, a plastic takeaway box or a cardboard pizza style box. So all you people declining to ask on the grounds that mash potatoes and gravy not travel well in a bag, calm down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Haha Im glad it's not just me then! My boyfriend thinks its weird...

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Being less wasteful is also about not cooking too much food, portion control has economic, health and environmental benefits. I've no desire to carry a bag of scraps onwards to the pub or on the bus home. Of course ask for one if you will eat it, but how often does it end up in your own bin anyway? I order what I know I can eat which means I never have a dessert, having no sweet tooth helps!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I would never be afraid to ask for a doggy bag especially at our local Indian restaurant. The food there is lovely and I'm afraid I am rather guilty of 'eyes bigger than belly' syndrome when I look at the menu. I always have a lovely breakfast the next day..... Unless my food can be as tasty the next day, I look at other diners meals to gauge the portion sizes before I order so I never leave any.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I'm not sure it's anything to do with being repressed; more of a faff if you ask me! Last Christmas Day myself and my wife had Christmas dinner in a very nice hotel and not being as portly as me, she asked for a DB for the meat she hadn't eaten. "Of course" said the waitress; but she wouldn't hand it over until we'd signed a disclaimer that meant that the they wouldn't get sued Bonkers!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

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

    I quite agree. I don't know why restaurants are so hostile to this as they normally charge the earth for the bottle of wine in the first place.


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