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. 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.

  2. 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 . . .

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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.

  25. 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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