My aim with this post is to make you feel uncomfortable. And to rally you to a cause.

Image via wisuella tumblr
Image via wisuella tumblr

For reasons I can’t comprehend, much of the planet (America aside) gets weirded out by the idea of asking a waiter for uneaten food to be put in a container to be consumed later. So much so they’ve got it into their heads that they’re illegal or unsafe.

But you know what? It ain’t any of this. It’s vanity. We think walking out of a restaurant with a little bag is a crook look. We think leaving food on our plate is a mark of sophisticated restraint. We think scraping together food for seconds is scabby.

My response? Get over it, get real and get responsible.

  • Australians toss $8 billion worth of edible food every year.
  • Food waste is a bigger pollutant than cars and industry.
  • Consumers are the biggest contributors to food waste. Because we’re vain. This is unfathomable and unforgiveable.

Worse yet, apparently less and less of us are asking for doggy bags, with Gen Y tagged as the biggest food wasters – 26 per cent say it’s too embarrassing to ever ask for a doggy bag.

Most people I know don’t even save their leftovers at home. It’s easier to scrape them into a bin than to get creative and re-purpose for lunch the next day. All the while, they’ll complain they don’t have time to make their lunch! The lack of logic astounds me.

I’m anticipating some backlash. So, here’s my ready-to-go responses. I’d apologise for being so blunt. But I’m feeling the topic warrants a sharp edge.

But aren’t doggy bags illegal?

In Australia, absolutely not, as outlined in the various state and territory Food Acts. If you want to nerd up, you can click to the respective Acts for Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Victoria and South Australia.

Overseas, here’s the deal.

1. In the UK, it’s totally legal to ask for a doggy bag, but almost never done. A survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) showed 25 per cent of diners were too embarrassed to ask, with 24 per cent wrongly believing the practice was against health and safety policies.

2. In South Africa, it’s very much the done thing. Restaurants will usually offer you a doggy bag before you even ask. And some get fancy in how they present your leftovers. You might head home with your leftover steak wrapped in the body of a tin foil swan…

3. In much of Europe, like the UK, asking for doggy bags is frowned upon. Again, it’s not illegal, but Europeans do expect you to eat everything that’s on your plate at that particular meal. Also, serving sizes don’t tend to be as enormous. In Stockholm, Sweden, in an effort to get more people asking for doggy bags (surveys showed 80 per cent were reluctant to ask), the Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society (Konsumentföreningen Stockholm-KfS) made an informational video offering tips on how to make food last longer and to cut waste, featuring Swedish rap star Dogge Doggelito. Read more here.

4. In America, it’s legal and happens all the time. Stats from 2002 show 91 per cent of Americans take leftovers home at least occasionally, and 32 per cent do it on a regular basis. Mostly because serving sizes are too big and people know they can get two meals from one.

5. In China, home to about 20 per cent of the world’s population, taking home and reusing leftovers is very common. Readers tell me there’s even a special term for a “leftovers stirfry”.

What about food poisoning?

Seriously? Four words: Americans do doggy bags. Americans are the most hygiene-phobic (and litigious) folk I’ve met. If they deem the practice safe, then I reckon the rest of us can sleep easy with a gullet full of day-old lasagne.

Second, if you follow these guidelines, you won’t land in trouble:

  • Keep the leftovers covered. (Take them home in a sealed container or wrapped up in a paper bag.)
  • Refrigerate the food below 5 °C as soon as possible. (Two hours unrefrigerated is generally OK as long as the food is not sitting in the sun.)
  • Food poisoning bacteria grows at between 5-60 C. If you’ve gone home from the restaurant and stored your leftovers correctly in the fridge you won’t have a problem.
  • Eat the leftovers within 24 hours.
  • Reheat refrigerated food for at least 2 minutes to steaming hot (above 75 °C) before eating.

But my restaurant down the road won’t allow it!

OK, in Australia, individual businesses can choose (ditto in the UK) to deny a doggy bag. They’ll claim it’s because they fear getting sued for food poisoning. Some allow them, after making the consumer sign a form, protecting the company legally. But know this: once you’ve paid for the food, it’s legally yours and you have every right to take it. The restaurant may refuse to package up your leftovers for you – which they are within their rights to do – in which case you’d need to provide your own doggy bag. I know regular eater-outerers who always take a container to restaurants for this purpose (to save on plastic!).

But I don’t know what to do with the leftovers…

OK, you can simply reheat and eat. But don’t reheat in the plastic container – transfer to a BPA-free dish (the ceramic bowl or plate you’ll be eating from is best, saving washing up).

Or you can chop the entire meal coarsely, heat in a pan and toss through an egg and cheese to create bubble and squeak.

Or tear up the heated meat and toss through some steamed veggies or over a salad.

Can I ask for your help? I’m thinking about starting a campaign to educate restaurants on the matter, so that they encourage doggy bags. Feel free to share your thoughts – what hinderences do you see, what do restaurateurs need to know, what positive initiatives have you spotted? And would you support me if I did put the effort in?

Have your say, leave a comment.