Mouthing Off

Waste away: why taking home leftovers is as bad as throwing away scraps in a restaurant

We are taught from childhood to finish all the food on our plate, reminded of starving children and waste. So what do you do when you can’t finish that delicious meal in a restaurant? Andrew Sun ponders the dilemma

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 6:52pm

I always have an existential crisis when I reach the end of a meal and there is still food on the table. Everyone is likely full from stuffing their faces but the tasty leftovers stare at us, calling out alluringly, “Eat me! Eat me!”

Will I or someone else push past our point of uncomfortable, distended stomachs and finish off the last morsels? Or do we just leave them to be thrown away? A third option is to ask for a takeaway box and take it home.

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It’s a situation that anyone who enjoys dining out has faced. It’s sad to see perfectly good food passed over like unwanted orphans. The longer the remaining portion stays on the table, the less likely it will find a mouth to call home.

The first option is always the best; if someone can clean off the plate, that’s the ideal. But chances are, everyone has hit the wall already. That’s why we’re slumped in our chairs, ready to slide our belt notch back one hole.

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Telling the waiter we’re finished so they can clear the plates never feels good. I hate to waste anything. I never got the guilt trip about “starving kids in Africa” from my parents, but I know they worked hard to provide for us, so to wantonly dump even one bony piece of chicken or a crusty lasagne corner seemed an affront to the Asian ethos.

That’s why an unspoken family rule was to cart home any food we could in styrofoam or plastic boxes.

Over the years we’ve contributed more than our share of takeaway containers to landfills. I am not proud of this, but it’s our legacy and history so let’s celebrate it.

The thing is, at the time we thought we were being conscientious by not wasting food. “Aunt May doesn’t want her red bean soup? Let’s take it home because Uncle Fred loves it.”

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“There are three pieces of Peking duck left. Just pack it and I’ll have it with noodles for lunch tomorrow. And don’t forget the carcass and bones for congee on the weekend.”

I’ve seen family members leave a 12-course wedding banquet with 12 takeaway boxes. Don’t even get me started on the warehouse stack of toothpicks, towelettes and McDonald’s napkins they’ve swiped.

In a way, it’s kind of noble to be so frugal. It’s also understandable because that generation lived through much harder times, when people had very little. But nowadays, it just seems incredibly uneconomical, especially when my dad takes leftovers home and they sit in the fridge until they turn into green mould. At that point, the box and all its content becomes garbage.

I sometimes take leftovers home and I do feel guilty about the plastic box. But I feel worse about the condiments at restaurants, especially fancy ones, that get discarded for no good reason.

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For example, I mourn all the servings of unused butter that get thrown out nightly. I object to servers switching the bread mid-meal just because a half-eaten basket doesn’t look good. I am forever tempted to yell, “Stop, give me those breadsticks!” Alas, it’s not good to sound like a cheap hoarder if you’re at a business dinner.

Of course, the best way to eliminate leftovers is to order less. Alternatively, we can make a habit of always bringing our own reusable containers. Maybe what we really need is a more stringent parental dining attitude: nobody leaves the table until their plates are finished!