Dining Out around the World: the Doggy Bag

We were recently in our favorite Munich Brauhaus for lunch with a friend who was visiting from the US. Her portion of käsespätzle was far too generous for her and she simply couldn’t finish her meal. She asked me if I could ask the waiter in German for a doggy bag.Part of me cringed, because I knew what was coming.
It was just a matter of how it would be communicated: an eye roll, a sigh, a sarcastic laugh, a frown or a flat out nein!

…or all of the above?

„sie würde es gern mitnehmen…uhm…haben Sie….“

And before I could even finish my sentence, there it was: an eye roll (in Lederhosen) combined with a deep sigh and polished off with an “Uhh. Ok”
(That’s a passive-aggressive kind of “ok” by the way. The ok that oozes with wellif-I-must-but-I-really-don’t-want-to.)

I’ve never actually understood the problem. In my humble opinion, I think that a chef should feel complimented that a guest enjoyed their meal so much that they would rather take it with them to enjoy later, than have it land in the restaurant’s trash bin. Furthermore, as a paying customer, I would much prefer not to have to waste either food nor money.

The origins of the American doggy-bag may be up for debate, but many sources mention that the ancient Romans would carry napkins to wrap up leftover food in. Later during the war, it was said that food was scarce and wasting it would have been unthinkable, so frugal practices became a routine. Whichever theory you may side with, the simple fact is that people have been saving their food for later, for centuries.

The etiquette surrounding the doggy-bag is just as much up for debate as its origins.

In a 2002 survey, the American Dietetic Association concluded that 91% of Americans take leftovers home at least occasionally, and 32% do it on a regular basis.

And over to Germany: well asside from the fact that the custom of doggy-bagging your food is not always accepted here in Germany (or other parts of Europe), the term itself should really never be attempted to be translated.
Tourists beware!
If you’re visiting Germany and eager to try your hand at speaking deutsch, just remember that many things can’t be translated literally.
It’s simply “zum Mitnehmen” (to take with you). You’ll have to factor in that the waiter may retort with an unfriendly reaction your request. Don’t take this personally.

Translated literally, a doggy bag is a  hundetüte here in Germany. And a hundetüte is what you will see in Germany’s many parks and pedestrian zones. It’s a little dispenser with little plastic bags. Nein, not for leftover food… but for dog owners to clean up after their mutts, so no one has to step in it.

So, will the doggy bag – or having your left over food zum Mitnehmen – ever become accepted in Europe?

The Sustainable Restaurant Association in the UK has launched a “Too Good to Waste” campaign. In an effort to make the doggy-bag more socially acceptable, the campaign aims to bring more consciousness to the topic of food waste. They estimate that roughly 600,000 tonnes of food waste comes directly from restaurants every year. Imagine how much more is being wasted across grocery shops and in private homes?

What are the customs in your home country when it comes to leftover food?
And why is it that Europeans are too embarrassed to ask for a to-go box?
Or, what makes most Americans so comfortable with the notion?

24 thoughts on “Dining Out around the World: the Doggy Bag

  1. That’s a very interesting point of view… I never, ever had a waiter frown at me for asking to take home any leftovers – and I have lived in Germany all of my life… I mean, you really wouldn’t go and ask for a doggy bag in any star-rated restaurants. But apart from that it’s perfectly okay to ask 🙂

  2. I definitely have no problem with the portion sizes in the U.S. being big! I get two meals out of it and it saves me money! I don’t know very many people in the States who actually finish all of their food. And regardless of how big potion sizes are in a country, I feel like to-go boxes should be available because it is terrible to waste food. I think it has to do with the fact that in the United States it is impolite to finish all of your food because it “shows” that you “didn’t get enough to eat.” I lived in the Middle East for a period of time and portion sizes were massive – or maybe they just looked massive because the entire meal was just a giant plate of rice. I could never finish it and to-go boxes were, of course, not available. Most of the time the meals there were meant for multiple people to share, but in the United States cleanliness is more of an issue with food and we don’t want tons of people’s hands in our plates, so we tend to lean toward individual portions. Even with the massive plates in the Middle East, it was more rude not to finish all the food because it “shows” that you “didn’t enjoy it.” I also think Americans enjoy leftovers so much because we are workaholics. Seriously. We don’t spend as much time with our families during breaks and for meals because we are so busy that leftovers often work really well with our schedules. I love having leftovers after a night out at a restaurant because it means one less meal for me to prep during my extremely busy days! This is less of the case, for example, where I lived in the Middle East, where meals generally last much longer and the woman is at home all day and free to cook. Many workplaces close a few hours earlier than here in the U.S., so people have more time to enjoy their meals and less of a need for quick bites or leftovers! Just my observation…

    1. Thanks Stephanie! I am not sure what you mean by “showing you didn’t enjoy it”… I do think it’s interesting how different cultures have different views on what is acceptable when it comes to eating and dining!

      1. Oh, I meant that some people think that if you don’t finish your plate you didn’t truly enjoy it. I put this in quotation marks because that’s not necessarily true. It mostly just comes down to social graces.

  3. So much time in Germany, so many conversations about doggy-bags and about how best to “zum Mitnehmen” after having “zum hier Essen.” This question, this topic requires beer. 🙂 This is another lifetime project to seek out throughout the big-D the who’s and why’s (or why not’s).

      1. I think the “hidden camera” segments would be enough for its own show, which in D-land *would* probably get shown, or at least, the segments would make their way to programming on RTL, SAT1, or Pro7. 😛 I think what’s really interesting (and something to which I’d like to get at the source) is why restaurant employees feel so “pained” when someone wants to “doggy bag”. Is it sense of entitlement, and that they simply don’t want to, or couldn’t be bothered? We used to say the word “Kundendienst” was (is still?) an oxymoron in D-land.

          1. HAHAHAHA, wahr gesagt. Leider so. I had hoped that over the years (when I moved to Heidelberg 2001-2003) that things might have changed. I think to some extent that things have (slowly) changed with my visits back to Germany many times since. Or maybe it’s a generation thing. Or maybe it’s a “German thing”. 😉

  4. I don’t like letting things go to waste. Unfortunately, I tend to eat all of my meal even after hitting the point of being full. the problem in the U.S. is our portion sizes are too big. I do remember several years ago when we were in England with my wife’s cousins who live there, my wife asked for an American-style doggie bag. The server just laughed and said he didn’t have that but could bring a British one.

  5. Love this comparison of two cultures, I’ve wondered that too. So then what is the problem Europeans have with the doggy bag then? Do they not like to pack things to go?

    1. good question! well in most parts of Germany it was never really a custom to pack your food in a restaurant to go. I think times are changing and in some restaurants it may not be a problem, especially bigger cities. However at the end of the day, most Germans, if not most Europeans, are still too embarrassed to ask for their good to go 😉

  6. I have the tiniest appetite possible. I cannot finish even normal sized meals for the average person. When I was living in Budapest, I had no issue boxing up my leftovers. Sometimes the servers even ask me if I wanted it packed up to go. When traveling around Europe, I can’t think of a time where someone rolled their eyes at me, even know I’ve heard of dislike for packing things. I just can’t let food go to waste! Back home, In Vancouver, sometimes I even bring my own take away container and box it up myself. I think Vancouver is such an anomaly though as there is such a big focus on sustainability, healthy living and being green. I wouldn’t do it while traveling though!

  7. Taking home leftovers isn’t that common here in the Netherlands, either, (although there’s an American-style ribs/steak place here in Utrecht that doesn’t make a fuss about packing up leftovers to go). I generally find here (and in Italy) that the portions are considerably smaller than US portions, though, so there’s just less reason to ask for a doggy bag. In fact, the ribs place is the only one I’ve been to where the portions have been large enough for me to not be able to finish.

    I had no qualm asking for a doggy bag while I lived in the US, but I am aware that it’s not really done here in Europe. I do wish the attitude would change, though. If you’re going to serve enough food that someone might not be able to finish, taking it home shouldn’t be frowned upon. I hate the idea of waste.

    1. Hi Alison! thanks for stopping by! I agree. The world is in ruins and so many people starve to death, it makes me sad to see ANYTHING wasted at all – especially food! Portion sizes are an interesting detail to all of this!

  8. Agreed! Plus, as someone who doesn’t like to cook, I always look forward to leftovers the next day! I won’t lie: I have no qualms eating Mexican food leftovers for breakfast, for example (it’s one of my favorite breakfasts, actually!). I was talking to a friend and we find it quite surprising that one wouldn’t take leftovers; after all, Germany is otheriwse very progressive with its impressive recycling and rubbish programs. It seems strange to waste food. The other part that is strange to me is that there are people still alive who can clearly remember being hungry, post-war. The only hypothesis I could come up with is that by rejecting taking home leftovers, it is a way of distancing oneself from the past? Maybe that’s too far-fetched. Other reasons I’ve heard is that “the food won’t taste as good when it’s reheated.” I don’t think that most people would expect the food to taste as it had coming straight from the original kitchen, but it would still taste good.

    1. Those are some great observations you have actually! you are right, Germany is very advanced when it comes to recycling, perhaps borderline neurotic 🙂 you would think that ANYTHING going to waste is taboo. I should say that taking your resto food home with you from some low key places MAY be possible, but even having to ask strikes most Europeans as embarrassing and I can not quite figure out why… Thanks for stopping by

  9. I always find this interesting: restaurants in America are blasted for having huge portions. Many women’s magazines advise saving half of the meal to take home and eat. In Germany and other parts of Europe, I find that the servings are also very large and can be even the same size as American meals. When I’ve been out with my European friends, I haven’t noticed them ask for anything zum mitnehmen. However, they tend to finish the whole meal. Maybe people here plan way ahead and make sure to arrive quite hungry so they can finish the whole meal? I live in a heavily Americanized area of Germany and many of the restaurants here are accustomed to dealing with us. If the waiter seems friendly, I might ask to take leftovers with me. However, I don’t dine at very fancy places (I don’t like them, as they usually cater to meat eaters and I don’t like meat). Maybe the less fancy restaurants don’t mind as much?

    1. Thanks for stopping by! good point, I think it does make a difference when you’re in a nice low-key local spot but even then, sometimes you get the stare down 😉 I have noticed that portion sizes are getting bigger and bigger over here in Germany but I feel as though dining out is a real treat here, whereas back in the US I went out to eat much more often “just for fun” with friends. I might have a different experience since I worked in the restaurant business so we spent our life in kitchens and dining rooms! I hope it becomes a bit more acceptable here across Europe because I hate to waste food!

  10. I t agree with Amy; in fact I blogged once about growing up in New York City the 50’s and being told that if i didn’t finish my plate, it wouldn’t go well for the starving children of Europe! (I never did figure that logic out.) I’ve never been outside the North American continent. so I was unaware that Europeans frown on taking leftovers home. I think it is a shameful waste of food, unless those restaurants donate leftover food to food pantries – of course not from plates where people have eaten. I would be curious to know how non-Europeans respond to this question.

  11. Eva,
    I can’t speak for ALL Americans, but I (myself!) have a pathological fear of letting anything “go to waste.” I was raised, like many in my generation, to have a heart for the “poor starving orphans in China” who would be very grateful for the scraps that I leave on my plate. So I never am shy about asking for a doggy-bag (or a take-out clamshell?) and nobody ever rolls their eyes at me, either. My mom takes it one step further–she’ll take the leftover garnishes, too (kale, lemon wedges, etc.) One time she made the lemon wedges that she brought home from a restaurant into a very delicious lemon meringue pie, and I (for one) toasted her resourcefulness (as I ate my slice of pie). Or maybe we just have no pride.?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Amy! I find it interesting that’s it’s much more acceptable in the US. No one ever rolled their eyes at me there either. Here in Europe though it’s a different story! I hate wasting food too!! I generally eat everything that’s on my plate anyway 😉

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