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.


  1. Love you, Starlit! Great take!

    One thing, though–the new kids are nervous and the stakes are high. Some places they really do care about this crap–maybe you don’t want to work there–I know I don’t and that’s why I no longer do, but that’s because I have a choice now, being older and well-married. Some of the newly graduated really need the jobs they can get…, doesn’t it?

  2. The snarky comments would be hilarious, if only they were right. I ran into a law firm partner at a bar event a few months after a lateral move (so maybe 3 years ago). He said it was “just too bad [I] let [my]self be talked into taking home [my] leftovers.”
    In a job interview, the waiter asked if I wanted a box. I said no thank you. Then one of the lawyers interviewing me took a box and said something like “are you sure you don’t want to take your leftovers” and I said ok to the waiter. Evidently it was a test and I failed. So if you want to mock people sharing their own concerns and advice as paranoid, fine. But given my experience, things like whether to take home leftovers matter.

    • I could be totally offbase here, but that sounds like a test of confidence/decisiveness, not etiquette. I mean, that doesn’t make it non-stupid or anything, but I kind of feel like if you had said yes the first time, the lawyer would have said “You’re taking home your leftovers??” to see if you changed your mind that way.

    • yet you still got the job? not too much of a failure then

      • No, I didn’t get the job. I got another one and I agree it was ridiculous, but with so many people out of work right now, evidently even the ridiculous matters so discrediting discussions on topics like these that may seem silly is just condescending and rude.

        • Wow. Just wow. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to work with people like that. Probably saved yourself a nightmare.

        • I am so glad you didn’t get the job. Can you imagine spending your whole career working for a sicko like that?

    • Yikes, and sorry! I guess I’ve been lucky who I worked with, but its just so hard to realize that there are people out there judging every move we make as if it is hugely important. My point, with maybe a little too much hyperbole and sarcasm, was that if you went out with (for instance) Urbangirl and Cat, there’s no “right” decision you could make – one of them would find your behavior unacceptable.

      • I might find it wasteful, but I certainly wouldn’t take it into account in my assessment of your ability to your job. And while personality and attitude is a huge factor for some interviewers, I would hate to think that would be the winning or losing “point.” After some thought, I really don’t care whether you take home leftover food or not, but I certainly disagree with it being inappropriate to ask for a box. And anyone who makes you feel silly for asking for a box (or not) is wrong. I might THINK it’s silly to not ask for a box, but I would never say it, nor would I make anyone uncomfortable about such a mundane issue.

      • I think I sounded a little harsh. I personally don’t care either way, but I have regretted asking for leftovers boxed up in the past because of delaying everyone else’s departure, and been teased (not by people who knew me well) for “over-ordering” despite just opting for an entree – so maybe I’m just very sensitive to avoiding the feeling again!

        Just pay attention to the people you’re with, and the formality of the occasion. If you’re out with coworkers and the leftovers could be stashed in the office fridge for tomorrow’s lunch, go for it.

    • Marla,
      It sounds to me that they didn’t really care if you took home the leftovers. The issue was that you really wanted to but weren’t going to do it unless someone else was. Maybe they were looking for someone who wasn’t concerned with needing the approval of others. I mean…I could be wrong but that’s what it seems like the test was about.

  3. Marla, that is an unbelievable story, and I’m sorry, but that interviewer was an a$$. You couldn’t pay me enough money to work for someone who imposes a “test” like that (whatever it is that it “tests”).

    • I agree completely. The craziest thing is that one person imposed the “test” and this partner heard about it and months later cited it as the reason I wasn’t hired. At the time I could think whatever, I wouldn’t want to work for you if that was all a set-up, but in this economy when I have friends considering bankruptcy, if I were out of work I don’t think I could be so selective.

    • The other thing about insane tests like that is there’s no way to predict the right answer ahead of time. The interviewer could just have easily decided not taking a doggie bag and wasting food was a non-hiring offense. Hard to get logical algorithms out of completely nutty behavior.

  4. Phooey. I’ve done it. I am not going to leave a perfectly good steak sitting on a plate to go in the trash. Of course, I am about 20 years out and I pretty much “am who I am” at this point. With all that said, I think it depends on who you are eating with. If you have gotten to know the clients some, or the dinner had a fun, light feel, take the leftovers. And if I took a clerk out for lunch or dinner, I would not care if they took the leftovers with them.

  5. After countless lunches as a summer associate and working in the energy industry where I was almost always the only girl, I definitely use both of the tips mentioned above: 1) I’m still deciding, come back to me or 2) what is everyone else having, I can’t decide. I suppose this at times might make me look indecisive, it beats doing the wrong thing. You can also order a main course, and then if everyone else orders an appetizer or a salad, catch the waiter at the end and say that sounds good, could you please add X for me as well.

    If I have a lot of food leftover and I feel bad letting it go to waste, I’ll make a point of saying I’m taking it home to my husband for his lunch tomorrow . People seem to like that I’m thinking of him, and I feel better about not wasting the food. Sometimes I will leave the food, though, if I think it might delay the table or just doesn’t feel appropriate – I think you have to gauge who you’re with.

  6. There are a number of vegans at my firm and we often have to travel together. I don’t care what the vegan eats but I cannot stand comments about my yummy meat.

  7. Never take a doggy bag from lunch it most certainly makes you look greedy. The only exception that I could think of is if you are paying for it. In other words you are a solo practictioner and are taking somebody to lunch so that what your firm pays for means you are actually paying. Also, if you a “business” lunch that is just two business friends meeting for lunch and both or one of you are actually paying the bill, then fine, eat the leftovers for dinner. But… if your company is paying the bill, do not take leftovers.

  8. Ideally, you need to consider the people around you when considering whether or not to take leftovers.
    If this is a really formalized setting with highly regarded colleagues or clients, I would advise against it for a few reasons. First, you may come across as greedy or as a “penny-pincher” that doesn’t want to pay for their own meals (I personally think this is bogus, but there are some elitist types that have this perspective). Likewise, if your colleagues do not take any leftovers themselves, you could cause them to wait unnecessarily for your meal to be packaged, which probably wouldn’t go over very well).

    If it is a more intimate setting with your closest co-workers and clients that know you considerably well, I don’t see any problem with taking leftovers (I too, feel like way to much food goes to waste at restaurants- especially the very fancy ones that serve several large courses).

    While were on the topic of food etiquette, I’ll add that as a female partner at my firm, I always question how much is appropriate to order during the meal. You order too much, with too many specifications and you may be seen as over-indulgent and high-maintenance; but if you oder too little, you get accused of “skimping out”, and the male counterparts assume you must be dieting. So to play it safe, I usually dodge the “Can I take your order?” question using the classic “Everything looks so delicious, I just can’t decide”, and I let my colleagues order first. It works!

  9. I would never consider it a faux pas for someone else to take a doggy bag.

    I take my cues from the others that I dine with.

    If I am the most senior person at the lunch, or if I’m “in charge” and paying — for example, on a recruiting lunch — I would take (and have actually done so) a doggy bag because, hey, I get to make the rules. In this economy, if a recruit doesn’t want to take a job somewhere because an associate gets food wrapped to go, well, I hope they are #1 at Harvard.

    If I was eating a meal with a partner, it would depend on how well I knew the person, and my judgment of their liklihood to judge based on something like that. I have one partner that I travel with extensively. We’ve shared a lot of personal (and sometimes embarassing) moments through our travels, and I would feel comfortable taking leftovers if I was dining with her.

    If I was eating with a client, or someone more senior that I didn’t know as well, I would err on the side of caution and not take anything wrapped to go unless they took something to go as well.

  10. Anonymous :

    Apparently I’m counter culture here. I rarely eat leftovers, so prefer not to take them from the restaurant. However, at a business lunch I always take leftovers as I believe to leave them is judged terribly wasteful. Usually I wind up tossing the leftovers asap, since I won’t eat them.

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