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 354.

    Firstly - cultural differences don't make one group superior to the other (didn't Charlie Wolf's comment make him sound snooty?).

    Second - I echo a few other comments about portion size. I'm happy to take a doggy bag in whatever country I'm in but it's usually a sign that the restaurant values quantity over quality in their menu planning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Doggy bags are an obscene indication of gluttony. Clearly the food vendor needs to address portion control. This practice started in the US and anybody who has eaten out in the US will not be surprised. In my limited experience of people taking home 'excess-food bags' the contents are rarely eaten. 50% of the world dying from too much food 50% dying for lack of it. Big is not good when eating out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    My brother came over from Canada last year and when out for a meal with my parents, asked for a doggy bag as my mother wasnt feeling well and had left most of her main course. We were mortified but the waitress was an American student and was quite unfazed.

    When we were in Canada this year it was happening everythere an did seem very strange to those not used to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    I went to a pub last year, the Weighbridge Inn at Minchinhampton who sell pies at around £15 each. It was the day after a wedding and I was queasy after the night before, so after a few bites asked to take the pie away. The landlord flatly refused, saying: "That would be too risky." I was furious with his weird health and safety attitude. That's why some people are put off asking for a doggy bag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    In the States where this is common practice, the portions are huge. Not so much in the UK. I think it's actually in bad taste (no pun intended) to ask for a doggy bag in a restaurant. If I took friends out for dinner and they asked for a doggy bag I would be very embarrassed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    I have in past asked for a doggy bag, to take home my left overs, but the way they are packed and served was a problem, and most os unusable, due to going stale. I now ask for smaller portions, and even 1 dinner between 2 people to share, as it is more economical. I also know from past, that this gets more attention, and gives a little education to the restaurants..

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    If we really want to cut waste let's just take our dogs to the restuarant they will sit quietly under the table and we can cut out the extra packaging and the stigma of asking for a doggy bag

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    I think it's very bad form to ask for a doggy bag. It seems very stingy, and insulting. I go out to eat a meal, and I eat what I order. That's the point of it - you pay money so you can sit in a nice place, and get full and a bit drunk without having to do any work yourself. I can't imagine leaving a restaurant and then having to carry my leftovers home on the tube in a plastic bag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    America is renowned for obesity, perhaps this is a sign doggie bags are a bad idea. I would suggest smaller portion sizes in restaurants, or at least an option of a smaller portion size. Then we could have less waste and tackle health issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    On the rare occasion I don't finish my plate, I always ask for the leftovers to be boxed or bagged and so have most people I've ever eaten with. I didn't realise until reading this article that there was any kind of national hang-up about it!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    We always ask for any leftover meat to be wrapped up for our cat (although we have been known to eat it ourselves at home). We even asked in the famous Rules Restaurant in London, and received the remainder of our glorious rib of beef in a little Rules carrier bag. The waiters may not offer, but we have never been treated badly when asking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    In a motorway services where we observed that portion sizes were about twice that we wanted, my wife and I bought one meal and shared it. Not only did we avoid a horrible waste of food, but also saved quite a lot of money.

    I have a suspicion that some restaurants serve over-large portions to justify higher prices (and higher profit margins)

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    In Canada, they ask you if you'd "like that boxing up". I've never been given that offer in any UK restaurant. Maybe the waiters should be asking us instead of forcing the diners to ask? If I'm not asked, I assume they just don't have the means to offer that service - ie, they have no boxes.

    Also, like others have been pointing out, the term "doggy bag" really doesn't sound too good, does it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Some restaurants have reduced their portion sizes so there is usually very little left over at the end of a meal.

    We visited the USA a few years ago and ate at a pizza restaurant that had a buffet. There was also a group of Americans dining and when they left they took doggy bags - of the items from the buffet. This brings a whole new meaning to 'all you can eat buffet'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    I have never asked for a doggy bag.

    This is because we invariably eat everything on the plate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    JUST DO IT!!

    In fact that goes for everything else - you only have this life so live it

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    I thought the idea of encouraging us to ask for doggy bags was to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill? So what about all the extra packaging waste this will create? If it's not contaminated with food then perhaps a proportion of the doggy bag packaging could be recycled, but even recycling is an industrial process with its' own set of environmental impacts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Don't like the term doggy bag either, perhaps " I'll take whats left for Mr Manners" might be a polite Britlish way to say it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    I would like to take my leftovers home should I have some. I wouldn't ask for a doggy bag because I dislike dogs and I wouldn't put my food in a bag. I'd ask for a box or 'something to take my leftovers home in.' The term doggy bag just makes me think of poop scooping which is also gross.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    I have been refused a 'doggy bag' because it was against Restaurant rules - perhaps one could get ill be reheating food and then claim from them. Nanny State or what??


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