Reader mail: Can I take the leftovers from my business lunch?

Today’s reader mail wonders whether a doggy bag is ever appropriate…

I was wondering if it’s ever appropriate to get leftovers from business lunches or dinners wrapped up to go. The portion sizes at restaurants can be so large, and I hate having food go to waste (especially food from eating out!) but I am fairly junior and it may seem a bit much (as in grabby or greedy). Thoughts?

We agree, leaving leftover food is wasteful. However, we must caution against asking for a doggy bag (even if the restaurant will shape it into an amusing animal). You’re right, it does sound slightly grabby or greedy — particularly because it’s entirely possible to ascertain beforehand if the restaurant where you’re dining is one that believes in large portions, such as by looking around the room or asking the waiter — which means that taking leftovers might leave the impression that you either a) ordered for dinner as well as lunch, or b) just are not very observant.  Neither are good things for the business lunch.

Instead, we would say that the business lunch is all about precision ordering: if you know you’re not very hungry or just can’t eat large portions, look to the appetizer/salad sections of the menu. There’s nothing wrong with getting an appetizer or two instead of a main meal, or, if everyone else at the table is getting appetizers, ordering a plain green salad as yours. If this is really a problem, we’d advise you to avoid carbs at lunch — no pasta or potatoes — as those can be very filling, at least initially, and instead stick to vegetables, which are less filling, more nutritious, and a good use of opportunity to have someone else cook for you. (If you’re anything like us, all fresh veggies you buy go bad before you have a chance to eat them because you’re always at work, and veggie dishes requiring lots of work like cutting/chopping/cleaning just don’t get prepared that often.) We would also say that there’s no harm in being like Sally and asking for substitutions such as a green salad or fruit salad instead of potatoes, or to ask for creamy, filling sauces on the side.

-------Sponsored Links--------

If you just can’t finish your meal, don’t make a big fuss about it or comment about it — just put your fork and knife together on the right-hand side of the plate, and continue with the conversation.  (Leave your napkin in your lap until everyone is getting up to go.)

Readers, any thoughts?  Do you agree that leftovers should not be taken from a business lunch?

Pictured above: The Montage, the morning after, originally uploaded to Flickr by tstadler.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest


  1. I was at an associate/ partner lunch with my entire (boutique-sized) firm, and I had half a sandwich left at the end of my meal. The partner looked at me (a young junior associate) and said, “You’re taking that to go, right? No need to waste food.” Problem Solved! =)

  2. Re: in-house lunch–have you ever seen any non-admins take leftovers? In my firm, partners regularly do so which signals to me that I can to. That said, I usually try to give the administrative staff an opportunity to get their leftovers and don’t take anything unless there is still something left half an hour later. I feel that this is most equitable, especially if I attended the lunch, given the differences in our salaries.

  3. LBN: I think more casual in-house lunches are a totally different situation and would take another sandwich and piece of fruit if it was clear that everyone had eaten and the rest of the food was just going to go into the trash. I don’t think any explanation is necessary, but if you want to say something like, “This was so good that I hate to see it go to waste,” or “This is a lifesaver…I have a really busy night ahead of me,” that might make you feel less strange about taking it.

  4. Another vegetarian here. I bring granola bars and other snacks with me pretty much everywhere, and generally eat light in restaurants with colleagues. Sometimes I’ll gesture for the waiter/waitress to come stand right near me, so that I can ask if they’ll make something without meat, and not need to involve the entire table in the discussion. Most of my colleagues are now aware that I’m a vegetarian, and they are open to eating at veggie-friendly restaurants.

  5. Anonymous :

    LOL at the thought of asking for a doggy bag at a business lunch.

  6. This one is so hard for me! Food intimidates me, especially when there’s social pressure to eat a lot. I don’t usually eat much in one sitting, and restaurant portions usually represent at least two meals in my normal life. I second the “order light things” advice–that way you can eat more volume without being freaked out by the 10 oz steak. There’s no shame in looking like you’re “on a diet” so long as you don’t talk about it. I also second the “try local things” advice–as much for the social responsibility as for the fact that it demonstrates your enthusiasm for getting to know the area and culture. Whenever I interviewed out of state, the interviewees were always eager to advertise what was special about their part of the country and were very interested to see if I seemed equally eager to live there for more than a few months. Ordering grits and collard greens instead of arugula sometimes went a long way.

  7. A very helpful reminder that our push to save money and be frugal can go to far due to cultural constraints. Sigh. Those portions are big enough for two means usually . . .

  8. I am a little surprised by these responses. I can’t remember ever taking a doggy-bag from a business lunch, but that has more to do with the fact that my doggy-bags usually just end up spoiling in my refrigerator. I would have thought, though, that most people wouldn’t care one way or the other if you took leftovers rather than leaving a large portion of food on your plate.

    Apparently I was wrong. From the sounds of it, most of the people on this board would (a) notice and (b) consider it a major faux paux.

    Good to know.

  9. Am I the only one who doesn’t pay attention to what others eat or care whether or not they can finish their meal? Jeez, I’d hate to work with y’all if your coworkers are really that judgy. I really doubt anyone cares if you get a doggy bag.

  10. A collegue at a big Texas firm always orders a dessert to go at client dinners. I am always surprised when he does it. He started doing it as an associate and still does it as a partner. I have never seen anyone else do this. I’m not talking about doggie-bags, but an actual to-go order. His reason – to take it home to his wife and kid since they didn’t get to go to the dinner. What the heck? The idea of tacking on that extra item to the bill just always seemed rude and low-class. Squeeze every dime out of the firm, I guess.
    I’m indifferent to taking home leftovers. I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t usually do it on my own at non-firm events either. It would just sit in the fridge forgotten and uneaten. It wouldn’t bother me if someone else did take home uneaten food.

  11. As a summer associate I always took home the leftovers from lunch. Nobody commented on it, and I got an offer.

  12. I agree. To help me figure out what to do in situations like this I follow this guideline: business lunches are not about the food.

  13. I am diabetic, so I often have a very difficult time at business lunches and other office gatherings. Many times, there is not any good options on menus. At in-house gatherings, desserts and other sweet treats dominate. If I choose to participate, there are always comments on what I eat. A coworker has even grabbed a donut from my hand and thrown it in the trash. If I choose to not participate, I get comments on the availability of salads or other veggies at the restaurant. It is really a no win situation.

  14. I agree that business meals are not about the food. Further, it is not within my power or responsibility to prevent the problem of food waste. Therefore, no point in obsessing about 1 meal of my own. Sometimes though restaurant food is so rich that I really don’t need to eat that second helping (from a weight management perspective.) I read in a book once that its no less wasteful to carry the extra food around on my hips for twenty years.

    Also agree (hope?) that no one is paying as much attention as some writers think.

    Watch what the other women around you do.
    Check the menu before you get there so you can scope out the options depending on how the ordering unfolds – hard to do while making small talk.
    I don’t want people talking about what I ate (or didn’t) so I just don’t talk about others.

  15. A Different Liz :

    I’ve taken a box home from a business lunch on several occasions–certainly as a lawyer taking summer associates out for lunch and possibly even as a summer associate, although I don’t remember any specific instances as a summer. It seems rather sad that it’s considered preferable to see food that someone else paid for thrown away rather than taken home by the guest. I’m not really into the salad thing for lunch, because they never fill me up, and since most appetizers are rather fattening, I’d rather have a fish and vegetable main course than an appetizer as a main course.

    That being said, I would not take a box home from either an interview lunch or a lunch with a client.

  16. I just ate everything I could possibly put into my mouth. Makes me happy, makes the women around me feel good, makes the men around me feel good. If I am paying, I may even have dessert. On the other hand, my weight is under control, so I had that leeway. I figure it was one of my advantages, so I used it. Business is business.

  17. I wouldn’t ask for a box at either a client or a vendor lunch. Our company has started doing in house lunches for events rather than going out, so we always have a ton of leftovers that everyone just grazes on throughout the afternoon. If I’m having lunch with one of the partners (they usually try to each have a one-on-one lunch with everyone once a year), it depends on where we’re eating. Chevy’s yes, Country Club no.

    We also have an unofficial policy that leftovers from an in house lunch meeting are fair game once they hit the kitchen. Its gotten to the point where if the food is delivered early, the receptionist has to put a sign on it or certain people help themselves to the obviously untouched food.

    A few months ago, one of our vendors took the office out to lunch (we’re a pretty small office, about 25 people) and the President’s assistant was taking the afternoon off for an appointment. She came with us to the restaurant and then ordered an entire meal to go. We also have several people who will come in just for lunch if they have scheduled a day off and we have a company-wide lunch. The worst offender is one of the most highly educated and highly paid men there. he also doesn’t understand that you are supposed to take your hat off in restaurants and that its bad form to invite yourself to a ladies-only lunch because you are curious about what we talk about.

  18. Why not take the doggy bag and give it to a homeless person on the way back to the office? That way you do something nice, and you don’t look like you’re keeping extra food for yourself, if that worries you. It’s not hard to find homeless people in need of a meal in any major city. When I eat out I usually give my leftovers to a homeless person.

  19. Take it Home! :

    Male Law Firm Partner Speaking:
    I have a dog and if I am in town and have ordered a dish that yields a really great bone (such as an osso buco), I will get the doggie bag FOR MY DOG. I will usually announce this to all at the table at the time of ordering. Clients, who get pictures of my dog at Xmas, think this is great (although a bit kooky). It also turns out that this is a good icebreaker because people like to talk about their pets (current or when they were kids) and this opens the door to that pleasant conversation very nicely.
    Generally agree with comments saying to think ahead and not to over-order so as to place yourself in this predicament.

  20. Honestly, I think less of people who don’t take their leftovers with them to go, unless I know for a fact that they won’t be able to put it in a fridge anytime soon. Being resourceful and waste-conscious should not be thought of as tacky.