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

Business Lunch LeftoversToday’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.

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: Indian Takeout for Dinner, originally uploaded to Flickr by Diana Schnuth.

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  1. I’m totally against wasting food and always get a doggy bag when I’m just with my husband or close friends (reminds me to eat less and helps the waistline, too!), but I think it’s a little tacky to take food in a business setting.

  2. I agree – I frequently take home leftovers from dinners with hubby/friends, but for a business meal I’d skip it. Never really thought about the rationale for the instinct before, but… (a) you’ve paid with someone else’s money for not only the food but also the experience of eating together, and having the leftovers later is sorta using their resources on your own time (pathetic and wasteful as that sounds), (b) it makes everyone wait at the end of the meal for your waiter to bring back the box, and (c) if you’re thin/petite, it may seem you want to convey the “I’m so little, I should have ordered from the kids menu!” impression.

  3. I agree that it is not a good idea to get a doggy bag on a business lunch or dinner, but I would also be careful about making an extreme number of special requests. I had a coworker who would make at least two or three rather odd modifications to her lunch every time we went out with our boss (like only pineapple and grapes in her fruit salad). Her picky eating made her seem somewhat immature, despite the fact that she was in her early 50’s. I don’t see anything wrong with a couple of “dressing on the side” or “broccoli instead of potato”-type requests, though.

    • Amen.

      Immature, attention-seeking, something, but not likely something found attractive by fellow business people.

  4. I also had a client berate me one time for not taking my untouched food home with me. So, in deference to the client, I had it boxed up and ate it later. Now I’m periodically made fun for this by my co-workers who were at the lunch.

  5. urbangirl :

    Not sure I agree with the majority– when my colleagues and I would take potential associates on interview dinners, it was a little shocking how much food went to waste– sometimes the interviewee would eat only a few bites. I considered this to be a waste of the firm’s money and wondered why you wouldn’t just take it home and eat it later. I would also think leaving a large amount of food on your plate would actually subject you to more comments by business associates, whether joking or not, than to ask for it to go. And generally, the box is brought at the same time as the bill, so there is no extra waiting. I remember one lunch I went to as a summer associate where the food was ordered family style and there was a tremendous amount left over– the waitress asked the hostess of the lunch whether she wanted it boxed up and the hostess wrinkled up her nose and said something to the effect that she didn’t “do” leftovers, which I thought was highly immature for her status. Whatever. I certainly understand not taking the food if you are staying in a hotel, though.

  6. Thrifty Sophisticate :

    I agree that it is a little tacky to take business leftovers. If you have a lot left (not just bits with bites taken out) and you know the people decently enough, I would ask them if they would like to partake while you are still at the restaurant.

  7. I agree 100% with your advice. Emily is also very right about keeping the substitutions very basic (ie broccoli instead of potatoes).

    I too am horrified at the amount of food that gets wasted as a result of business meals. I hate hate hate having food go to waste. But that does not change the fact I would never ask for a doggy bag.

    My best advice is to think salads and lots of veggies and grilled fish. Somehow fish portions always seem more normal-sized. If everyone orders an appetizer I just order a small salad. What’s even better is when appetizers are ordered for the table, because that removes pressure to order an additional dish.

  8. I think it would be strange to take leftovers from a business lunch, or really any meal (other than with family) where somebody else is paying for it.

  9. I do not agree with the suggestion of making lots of special requests. It is one thing to request salad dressing on the side, but once you get into subbing ingredients and changing sauces, I think you look obnoxious, immature and high maintenance…and not a lot of fun to go out to eat with! Yes, it is a business lunch, but no one likes THAT girl.

    I also don’t agree with ordering a side salad or an appetizer. I personally am uncomfortable when I order a normal meal and the person I’m with orders a side salad and a water, and I wouldn’t want others to feel that way. I take my cues from the partners or clients with whom I’m dining. The waiters typically start with the women at the table (meaning I’ll likely be first), so I try to gauge what the others are ordering by saying”everything sounds excellent, what are you thinking of having?”

    • I follow a similar tactic in terms of trying to gauge the rest of the table (usually before the waiter comes because I have been in the situation where I am asked to order first and only ordered a main dish when it soon became clear that everyone else was going to do first and second plates).

      But I don’t think there is anything wrong with ordering an appetizer as your main dish. Often the appetizers are the most interesting/creative things on the menu so in those situations where I have felt that I needed to justify my order I just said “I can’t make up my mind between these two appetizers. I guess I’ll just order one as my main course.”

      If you do decide to order appetizers instead of an entree, make sure to specify that you want one (or both) as your main dish so that you are eating at the same time as everyone else.

    • Agree. Don’t order an appetizer/side salad as your meal, unless the higher-ups are doing the same. The meal is not about you or your food preferences, it’s about business. If you make a lot of subs and order apps for the entree, you look immature and high-maintenance and could make others uncomfortable. Also, you don’t want to fit into that stereotypical picky woman eater who can’t handle her food.

      If you are worried about wasting, try to order something with veggies or vegetarian and pick local food whenever possible. At least gas wasn’t wasted getting your dinner to your plate. And, no, doggie bags are not acceptable.

      If you are

  10. Am I the only one who actually avoids ordering small items and things like salads when in the presence of male co-workers? I am petite and maybe that is why I get this complex, but I actually sometimes worry men will think I am trying to diet when I don’t need to. I don’t want to come across as dainty or weight-conscious – to me, that would detract from being taken seriously.

    Re: leftovers. I think I took leftovers back to the office after almost every summer associate lunch this summer–I justify this by telling myself it sends a message that I’ll be at the office late and will need some calories to get through all that work! haha. Actually I just hate throwing food away. Regarding taking food for personal consumption when someone else pays, to me it seems more disrespectful to have the firm pay for a decent meal and then throw 70% of it away. I guess I still have a lot left to learn!

    • I’m not petite at all–5’10” and a size 16, and I avoid eating diet-looking food, as well, just because I am ornery about it–maybe it’s because I don’t want to feel/look apologetic about my size. Also, salads take a lot longer to eat, and at a business lunch, you are there to participate, not eat, and then you don’t get much to eat….

      unless it’s mostly women, and then I eat big salads, because that’s what I like. Pretty screwed up, I guess.

  11. I’m vegetarian, and especially when I lived in Texas, it was SO difficult to get anything to eat without making special requests.I can’t even eat Caesar salad because the dressing typically has anchovies. I’ve also been at lunches where I literally ate just a slice of cheesecake and a glass of sprite. I try not to make a fuss and inconvenience others, but the lack of sensitivity and snide remarks (from certain people) about skinny vegetarians really bothered me.
    Eating meat is not an option based on my religious beliefs.
    Am curious as to what’s the proper solution here. Do other associates/business partners understand? Do people make exceptions for dietary restrictions like vegetarian/kosher, etc. and not judge the person too harshly for being picky?

    • My sympathies! Texas is a hard state to be vegetarian in. Seems like a simple “It’s a religious thing.” ought to cut the comments. Sometimes people are trying to be cute or funny when they comment about vegetarianism without realizing they’re being annoying, but few are actually rude enough to go there with religion. That way too it’s clear you’re not just being high maintenance–you have convictions, even when it’s not convenient. That’s something to admire.

      • Well said. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone’s personal eating choices could just be respected, though?

    • I am also a vegetarian and I live in Texas. People think they are being cute and witty with their comments, but they don’t realize you have heard the same thing from hundreds of people for years! “Funny” comments aside, I generally find people understand and are honestly inquisitive about things—like most don’t know ceasar dressing is made with anchovies, or refired beans & tortillas made with lard, etc. and not judgmental. If it is a new restaurant and I don’t feel comfortable asking in front of my dining companions, I will go to the restroom to wash my hands and stop the waiter on my way to find out if the soup is made with chicken broth, beans with lard, etc.

  12. I agree generally, but I would take my cue from the host. If they get a doggy bag, they might be irritated if you don’t take extra food home. You have to know the person you’re out with.

  13. I really don’t think it’s a big deal to take leftovers home. I probably wouldn’t do it on an interview lunch or if I was with an important client, but if it’s a summer associate lunch, a mentor/mentee lunch, or something similarly business/casual, go for it. Stop worrying so much what everyone else thinks- the truth is that they probably couldn’t care less whether or not you took home your leftovers.

  14. If there’s enough food left on your plate that the server asks if you want a a box, then you should probably get one. This is a new business climate. Waste is bad.

    • I disagree. I’ve had servers ask me if I wanted a box when I had maybe one bite left, or just the rice, or some breading that had fallen off something fried. I think many places train servers to ask if you want a box if there is anything at all left, just in case (I know that was the case when I worked at a mid-range chain restaurant in college).

  15. Also, I agree that when you are with men, you shouldn’t eat like you are on a diet.

    • The difference between women and men is that the men are not paying attention to what anyone else eats. Relax, people.

      • oh, EJT, you are so wrong!
        I actually really, really like salads and used to order them quite frequently. I can’t tell you the amount of men who have commented on it and said “surely you aren’t dieting! order X(something fatty, but recommended at the restaurant). It is quite normal. Also, I’m not a huge fan of most desserts, but if I don’t order one, the men ALWAYS comment on that and say I must be “watching my weight”. It is quite annoying. Nine times out of ten I am the only woman with a group of men at a business dinner (I practice tax law – not that that makes a difference, just letting you know). I make a point now not to fall into the traps I previously did. I order substantial main courses, but often sub in veggies as a side to no comment and ALWAYS order dessert now.
        Also, I found clients were the biggest offenders of this rule. Especially our clients that were older corporate men – they always commented. perhaps it is because I am “younger” (late 20s/early 30s), but I frequently got this comment. Men notice more than you tink.

  16. I love reading this site because it always makes me feel that some oversensitive colleague is out there finding a way to judge me, whatever I do. And because there are usually harsh opinions on both sides of any given “issue,” all you ever know is that someone will be looking down on you, whatever decision you make. Paranoia is awesome and really adds to the work day.

    Personally, I will deem anyone I go to lunch with as an inferior human being unless they make at least 3 but no more than 5 changes to the menu items they order (ordering straight off the menu is so bourgeoisie, but making too many changes just makes you sound picky). If they eat all the food on their plate I will deem them an obese pig (if they are skinny, I will deem them bulimic), and if they leave too much food I will deem them anorexic. If they dare to take leftovers home with them, I will write them off as completely boorish individuals. I will spend so much time doing this I will fail completely to notice things such as the quality of their conversation and their other relative merits as human beings. Because, really, what is the point of that?

  17. I think it’s difficult being the only woman and having the waiter start with you, if you don’t know whether you’re supposed to order an appetizer or not. I’ve had to actually ask the senior person at my table what we’re doing before, and I thought that was relatively embarrassing, but what else are you supposed to do? If you order one and no one else does, you’re a glutton and a time-waster (since the whole meal will take longer); if you don’t order one, then you look foolish sitting there eating nothing when everyone else is.

    Agree about the vegetarian issues, though I’m sure it’s worse in TX. I think that everyone has different levels of sensitivities to vegetarian/vegan/kosher diets, and it can sometimes make lunch difficult, so sometimes you just have to tell people up front, before the restaurant is even picked, and risk sounding … I don’t know, entitled? That’s not quite the right word, but it is an uncomfortable thing to have to do. And it’s also doubly hard being vegan/vegetarian when you can’t decipher/translate half the menu, I’ve had to ask others for help or just ask the waiter what I should get given my diet restrictions. I think all of this brings more attention to you in a way that is not good, but I’m not sure what the solution is. Anyone have any ideas?

    On a variation of the original question, what do people think of taking items from an in-house lunch? At my company there is usually TONS of food left over, and the admin assistants take some afterwards, but a lot still goes in the trash. Some people occasionally take a small item out with them when they’re leaving, but I’d sort of like to take an extra sandwich to have for dinner later, if I didn’t feel so weird or self-conscious about doing so. What would you all think of someone did that?

    • I think it’s difficult being the only woman and having the waiter start with you, if you don’t know whether you’re supposed to order an appetizer or not. I’ve had to actually ask the senior person at my table what we’re doing before, and I thought that was relatively embarrassing, but what else are you supposed to do?

      I’m a fan of the “Oh, I haven’t decided yet; can you come back to me” move. It’s probably pretty transparent, when you’re the youngest one at the table, but beats asking outright, I feel like.

      • totally should have done this (saying I haven’t decided yet, or using the suggestion from above re: asking others what they are eating couched in “I can’t decide”) – my first day at my current job, partner takes me to lunch with a friend – I order first, and having any cues, I order a starter and a main. other two people ordered two starters. I made a little a joke – was training for a marathon at the time – but it was highly embarrassing.

      • Agreed–you’re better off asking the waiter to come back to you if you’re unsure on whether to order starters (or, alternatively, if you’re having the entree salad or sandwiches versus more traditional entree decision). It’s usually not awkward to pull off (everyone else is focused on what they’re going to order) and it’s much better than ordering something out of line with the rest of the table.

  18. I think I’m kind of with Starlit. If you’re cheerful and don’t take yourself too seriously – and for god’s sake, do not tell everyone about your diet ad nauseum – probably most people won’t care. I mean, do you judge someone who takes leftovers home? If you don’t, odds are other people aren’t judging you.

  19. Starlit — thanks for the laugh!
    I agree that generally we shouldn’t worry about what others think, and too much paranoia is self-defeating, but it can still be helpful to hear what others think about certain situations, it may add some perspective that you haven’t thought of before.

  20. LBN — Great question. I usually tell the waiter I’d appreciate being last to order so I can make up my mind. No one ever seems to mind going ahead of me, and that buys me time to figure out if everyone is having an appetizer (and thus I need to have something) or if one course is sufficient.

  21. 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! =)

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Anonymous :

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

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