Helen Martin: Waste not, want not – ask for a doggy bag

Woman Scraping Food Leftovers Into Garbage Bin
Woman Scraping Food Leftovers Into Garbage Bin
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ZERO Waste Scotland, an ­organisation I greatly ­admire, has come out with a “new” plan encouraging restaurant customers to take home their leftovers in a doggy bag.

Nowadays the equivalent of 800,000 full Scottish restaurant meals wind up in the bin. Many customers say they would be happy with a doggy bag, but 40 per cent are too shy to ask for one.

Drift back to the 50s and 60s, and everyone – including little children – were told to eat everything they were served. Other than allergies (rare at the time) personal choice didn’t come into it.

Any child leaving food on a plate was sternly commanded to “think of the starving children of Europe”. Often those who didn’t eat up knew they would have whatever it was served up again for breakfast.

Adults who left half a steak or chicken breast in a restaurant were considered to be ignorant and ill-mannered if they didn’t take it home. Food was valued. Waste was not tolerated. Surprisingly in those days, obesity wasn’t an issue either.

They were strict times. Even I wouldn’t adhere to all of that now in our “softer” society. But there are ­lessons to be learned from the past.

Back then going out for dinner was for most, a whole night out. Now it’s often followed by a pub, club or party. It’s hardly convenient to keep a gravy-soaked lamb shank in your handbag!

With no memories of war or rationing, it’s easy to understand why ­neither parents or children, especially if they are well-off, feel bad about leaving piles of grub on their plate, destined for the waste bin.

When they order from a menu, they don’t consider how much food they are able to consume and select accordingly. If they are paying for it, how much they leave is up to them. And often they’ve already eaten so much that day, the restaurant visit is a social occasion with no obligation to clean the plate.

Today it’s standard to ask your family at home what they fancy for an evening meal. Even that leads to unnecessary wastage. Back in the day, and still for many older people now, unless it’s a special occasion the basis for any meal is simply what’s in the fridge, with the greatest priority being anything approaching its use by date, wilting veg, or indeed anything that came home in a doggy bag. Almost everything can be used in rissoles or a casserole, and almost nothing edible should go in the bin.

Younger people now probably are shy or embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag, fearing it gives the impression that they are mean, or short of money – although the name “doggy bag” was diplomatically created so that diners could always claim it really was for their pet.

The reality is that asking for one is a compliment, verification that the food was good and you’ll eat it later. Leaving a lot of food on a plate with no desire to take it home, sends out a clear message to the restaurant that you didn’t rate it or it was badly cooked. It’s also a waste of food and staff costs, so they have good reason to be miffed at some customers, though they don’t show it, so don’t be shy.

I back the ZWS plan 100 per cent. But society and attitudes have changed so much, it may be difficult to bring the doggy bag back into fashion.