Doggy Bags Exemplify American Wastefulness


Blame it on dogs.

(Illustration: Emily Morrow)

I mean, if canines weren’t such dedicated carnivores would diners carry their unfinished steaks and pork chops home from restaurants in “doggy bags” for the pampered pooches to enjoy the next day? Or is the dog donation merely a cover for the fact that people are embarrassed to say that the leftovers are really for them?

Obviously my topic today is the national phenomenon of taking leftovers from restaurant meals home, a practice to which Americans seem addicted, the number ranging from about half, according to the National Resources Defense Council, to 62 percent according to American Demographics magazine. In other parts of the world, e.g., Europe, Americans are looked down on for “doggy-bagging” from restaurants, just as we are scorned for our habit of sharing food when we eat out.

The issues involved in taking your unfinished meal home from a restaurant are more complex than you might think, beginning with the environmental horror that is the polystyrene foam box; naught that is good can be said about this ugly ubiquitous object, nor its cousin, the “disposable” coffee cup, which is about as disposable as nuclear waste.

Notice that I did not write “Styrofoam,” because Dow Chemical Co. doubtless employs batteries of lawyers to make certain that their trademark is not infringed. Once in a wine column I wrote that a sauvignon blanc had the “snap, crackle and pop” of crisp acidity, and two days later came a certified letter from an attorney reminding me that the slogan was a trademark of Kellogg’s and to cease and desist.

Besides, Styrofoam is a closed-form extruded polystyrene foam, while the material from which take-home boxes, coffee cups and packing fillers is made is expanded polystyrene foam; it’s about time you knew.

The point is that ecologically speaking, from the initial manufacturing process to the final sad landfill resting place, polystyrene foam is a disaster, yet restaurants in America use untold millions of these non-biodegradable objects annually, both for take-out and take-home functions, while sheepish American diners have been trained to leave restaurants carrying, like talismans, the flimsy ghostly white containers of tomorrow’s lunch, often concealed in equally non-biodegradable plastic sacks.

Except that much of the take-home food languishes in refrigerators until it is discarded. American Demographics magazine informs us that of the leftovers carried home from restaurants, only 67 percent of women and 51 percent of men will consume the bounty. A gesture meant to avoid waste ends up contributing to this country’s vast amount of wasted food. How vast? Forty percent. (That’s a controversial figure; the USDA says 27 percent.) This means, says the NRDC, that $90 billion in agriculture and production cost “is dedicated to producing food that never gets eaten.” Contributing to the waste are the large portions and the extensive menus in restaurants and inadequate training for food handlers.

I was inspired to write this column by an incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago.

We dined in a very nice restaurant and unable to finish my braised short ribs with root vegetables and parsnip puree, I said that I would like to take the leftover portion home. The waiter took the dish away and returned in a few minutes with the leftovers contained in a tidy little cardboard box.

Well, hooray, I thought, none of this tacky, environmentally catastrophic polystyrene nonsense. Next day, however, I discovered that the interior of the cardboard box was not treated, nor had it been lined with waxed paper or aluminum foil in the kitchen, so the sauce had soaked into the cardboard, turning the whole thing into a soggy, unappetizing mess.

This incident illustrates what Brandon O’Dell, president of O’Dell Restaurant Consulting, said is the disadvantage of taking home unfinished food.

“‘Doggy bags’ for leftovers are one of the least favorite aspects of serving customers for restaurant owners,” O’Dell said. “When food goes out the door, they have no control over how it is stored, reheated or served. They lose control over the quality altogether. ‘Leftovers’ are a bad representation of the restaurant’s food.”

And speaking of how leftovers are stored, reminds us that when you carry the remains of your meal from a restaurant, the wisest course is to take it home immediately and refrigerate it. Food can begin to deteriorate and develop bacteria within two hours, so once you leave the restaurant, the viability window closes rapidly. If you go to a movie or to a bar after dinner and the food sits in the car for another few hours, don’t take a chance on it.

Surely the sensible course would be for restaurants not to serve the gargantuan portions that “value”-seeking Americans seem to crave, thereby eliminating the necessity for unfinished meals and subsequent doggy bags. Sometimes I sit in a restaurant and can’t believe the amount of food I’m expected to eat or the price I’m expected to pay for it.

“There is a movement afoot in the restaurant industry to serve smaller portions,” O’Dell said.

“Diners are becoming more health conscious, and restaurants who capitalize on this trend are gobbling up market share. Innovative owners are seeing this trend and capitalizing on it by shrinking portion sizes, listing calorie counts on their menus and shifting their marketing focus to health-conscious consumers. Rather than trying to compete for the business of those who want huge portions, they are appealing to the segment of the market that wants smaller portions.”