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Apr 8, 2013 01:15 PM

Returning Food - My Moral Dilemma

Was at a nice Italian place last night and ordered the Bistecca medium rare. It came well-done. I debated long and hard, before finally asking the steak to be re-fired.

I used to have no problem sending food back, particularly when it's an item that was clearly asked to be prepared in a certain manner, but came totally different than asked. But over the years, I've become increasingly aware of food waste and just how fortunate I am that I can usually eat what I choose.

And in this case (and others), it's become a huge internal struggle for me between getting what I want but also not wasting a perfectly good piece of meat that many many people could never dream of throwing away.

Does anyone else go through this? Just curious because certainly the Chowhound population is a) inclined to be picky about the way food is prepared but also b) very aware of social topics regarding food, such as waste

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  1. In this instance, I would have no hesitation in sending the steak back, as it was not what you ordered.

    50 Replies
    1. re: pikawicca

      so the waste part of the equation never comes into play for you? I agree, in a world where food is plentiful and no one starves, I would have had no issues sending it back as a steak medium rare is both a) a reasonable / standard request and b) not an objective measurement. But somehow it just bothers me that a piece of meat that many others will never be fortunate enough to taste is just thrown away.

      1. re: FattyDumplin

        As I posted, "in this instance" the "waste part of the equation" does not.

        1. re: FattyDumplin

          Perhaps this stuff isn't thrown away in merciful places. I'm lucky enough to travel these days. It wasn't always the case for either my husband or I and we worked in kitchens. These days if we're at an American restaurant with huge portions, and we're leaving town, we ask for a doggy bag. Then we ask our server to gift it to the neediest person in the kitchen like the dishwasher. This takes the liability out of the restaurants hands. We get some pretty surprised reactions but they always do it.

          1. re: sagewisdom

            Sincere answer: I would not, for health reasons (and no offense to you, at all...I'd say this for anyone) want to eat a stranger's leftovers. Never. Ever. Untouched food is one thing. A doggy bag is another.

            1. re: pinehurst

              Perfect example of a first world answer. If you were homeless and starving, you wouldn't think twice.

              1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                i venture to guess most on this board do indeed live in the 1st world. having internet is one of those privileges. :)

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  Indeed. But I don't need to venture to guess that at least my city has a large homeless & hungry population......

                2. re: Dirtywextraolives

                  It's safe to say the dishwasher is probably neither homeless nor starving, and even safe to venture that very few Americans are currently starving.

                  And yes, even the homeless here are cautioned not to consume half-eaten food.

                  1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                    I don't think it's a "first world" assumption that restaurant help might not wish to be "gifted" my half eaten food.

                    1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                      the kid of a friend of mine worked his way through college as a restaurant server. when diners requested a doggie bag and then forgot to take the bag with them upon leaving, he'd take the abandoned bags home with him for his next meal.

                      he was an ambitious kid who vowed he'd finish college with NO student debt and he succeeded at that.
                      also, apparently never got ill from eating all those left overs.

                  2. re: sagewisdom

                    Umm, I'm sure the dishwasher really appreciates that. (And of course with the doggie bag, you are still paying for the food which you've chosen not to eat, whereas the OP's dilemma is returning the food for a replacement.)

                    And just curious, pikawicca, but what makes "this instance" different from another instance? Clearly the OP's issue is with the morality of waste, not the morality of sending something back because you are paying and it is something you did not order, (where is the immorality in that unless it involves harassing behavior or unreasonably onerous demands towards the staff?).

                    I dunno, it's a slippery slope (e.g. you should not even be ordering meat at all, because --the argument goes-- it takes more calories of input in terms of feed than the output in terms of meat, so by feeding the cattle, you are taking food out of the mouths of people who do not have enough). I figure that if you do not make a habit of returning food every time it does not meet your exact specifications, and generally avoid habitually wasting or gratuitously tossing out food, you are on defensible moral ground.

                    1. re: sagewisdom

                      That sounds demeaning... restaurants provide meals for their staff.
                      Why not simply give it to a homeless person on the way back to your hotel or car?

                      1. re: iluvcookies

                        not all restaurants offer staff meals and not all offer free staff meals either.

                        how is it less demeaning to give half-eaten food to a homeless person?

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          I think it is the assumption that staff members, like the dishwasher, are needy.

                          1. re: pollymerase

                            and some might be needy, but concerned about the hygiene involved eating off a stranger's plate. yuk. the guest could have sneezed all over it, or worse.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              Indeed. I had actually started to mention that as well, but hesitated when thinking about my younger brother. He washed dishes in high school and college at a nice, local steakhouse. He typically would not hesitate to eat crab legs or lobster that was returned and appeared untouched, but I don't think he ever was riffling through half-eaten food in the doggy bags that were forgotten/left behind at the end of the night. Obviously, somewhat of a contradiction.

                            2. re: pollymerase

                              Exactly this, polymerase. Why assume the dishwasher is needy or wants your food? Offering it to someone who is more clearly in need is a better, though still not perfect, solution.

                              1. re: iluvcookies

                                went on a date once long ago and he insisted on wrapping up the left-overs, even though we had plans for after. he then tried more than once to give the left-overs to a few homeless people we passed. this was in the midst of truly dire recession in the '80s and homelessness in boston was very bad.

                                the bag was clearly marked with the name of a respectable restaurant.

                                not one person wanted the food. i tried explaining that it was demeaning and unsanitary and he just angry, finally tossing the stuff in the trash.

                                last date.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  Interesting. I've had people on the streets actually ask for my leftovers.

                              2. re: pollymerase

                                if you've ever tried living on minimum wage in los angeles, you would know that the dishwashers really ARE needy.

                                maybe minimum wage can cut it in rural areas, but truly you are poverty stricken in my city if that is all that you have to depend on.

                                1. re: westsidegal

                                  In the rural area where I live minimum wage will NOT cut it. Anyone I know making it, or slightly higher, is working at least 2 full time jobs.

                                  1. re: Firegoat

                                    firegoat: then the situation is universal.
                                    i am always flabbergasted when i hear folks talk as though minimum wage is anywhere near a living wage and that workers should be THRILLED to be working yet still be living in poverty.

                              3. re: hotoynoodle

                                i'd say it's especially NOT demeaning to give food to a homeless person who is engaged in digging through the trash can in front of a fast food restaurant hoping to find some left over food . . . . .

                                1. re: westsidegal

                                  there are many levels of "starving" to be certain, and i do not dispute that. however, and i have been told this by more than one homeless advocate, giving them your 1/2-eaten food IS considered demeaning by many. some people hold onto their pride longer than others, i suppose.

                                  nobody in boston can survive on minimum wage either. 98% of the lower-wage restaurant workers i know have at least 2 jobs, some have 3, and they all live with lots and lots of room-mates. that doesn't mean across the board they happily and gratefully seagull leftovers.

                                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                                    if even a couple of them will use the food (even if they feed it to their pets), imho, it's better to give the food away.

                            3. re: sagewisdom

                              Please consider that you may now be wasting not only the food, but also packaging for a doggy bag, as your offering is likely thrown away.

                              1. re: Niblet

                                while working in a boston restaurant a few months back, a guest from the south did not finish his meal. he asked me to bag up his remaining steak and any of the unfinished sides on the table.

                                "aren't you staying in a hotel? i knew he was - he'd told me so earlier. a hotel directly across the street. not even 50 yards away.

                                he said he was going to find a "deserving homeless person" and give the bag to him/her. leaving aside what he would deem"deserving", i explained that particular neighb had NO homeless. none. that in 3 years of working there, all hours of day and night, i had never seen one. i repeated this over his insistence a couple times, then finally gave in.

                                it was at least 6 plastic boxes plus a giant paper shopping bag full of food that i know went shortly right into the trash. stoopid.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  That is a LOT of leftovers.

                                  Also, what does being from the South have to do with anything?

                                  I am from the South and generally would never offer a homeless person my leftovers (I prefer them later!) but once when travelling in Austin, TX I was approached for money by someone on a lesser travelled road under a bridge. I said no to a gift of money but that I had lots of leftover mutton from Sam's BBQ and the person accepted.

                                  1. re: Dax

                                    i regularly see homeless people digging through the public trash bins looking for discarded food.
                                    not at all unusual.

                                    1. re: westsidegal

                                      I saw a lady give a homeless man at a traffic light a grocery store cooked chicken and he scurried under the overpass he was standing by, happy as a clam, probably the best meal he had in a while.

                                    2. re: hotoynoodle

                                      I am from the Deep South, and am not a fan of "doggie bags." As I travel most of the year, I have few ways to dine on those leftovers, so decline them.

                                      If the restaurant has some program to hand those leftovers out, that is their business.

                                      I strongly prefer portions that are intelligently sized, to begin with, so that we do NOT have many leftovers.

                                      I donate heavily to many charities, and have been responsible for bringing neurosurgeons to Tanzania, so it is not that I have zero responsibility - it is that I cannot be involved in every cause, known to mankind. What the restaurant does with any leftovers is their business. I eat what I desire, and leave the rest - for kitchen staff, the homeless man on the corner, the "starving children in China." Whatever.

                                      I would hope that if the restaurant sees a lot of uneaten food, they will change the portions.


                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        i have worked for 2 high-end steakhouses. the amount of uneaten food that got scraped into the trash was shocking and disgusting.

                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                          If that is a continuing theme, then maybe the restaurants need to revisit their portion sizes.

                                          In the US, I find too many to be too large, though at the same time, I see folk on various restaurant review sites, citing them as being too small.

                                          When I dine out, I am never interested in "super-sizing" anything.


                                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                                            it's part of the steakhouse WOW equation of too much food. gross to me and european diners would always freak out, but it keeps throngs of businessmen coming through the doors.

                                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                                              I agree.

                                              We encountered a very good (by other standards), high-end steakhouse, BUT all portions were giant. This was at a resort, so I doubt that most patrons had kitchens.

                                              We ended up dining there two nights (on our own, then as guests of the event). I had come to know the GM, and talked to him about the portions. His predecessor had done away with the Petite Filet (about 8 oz), and started with a 12 oz. offering. He promised to bring back the smaller one, as his observations were the same as mine.

                                              The sides were more than enough to feed four hungry adults, and I urged him to put a little statement to that effect. He agreed, but did allow that many of their patrons DID want leftovers. I do not know why, as cold Mac & Cheese is just not that good in a hotel room.

                                              We were also the first patrons, who wanted their fabulous Cheese Course AFTER our meal. Our server was astounded, and tried to get us to that as an app. The Fromagier was delighted, and loaded us up. I could not even share my wife's dessert that night. Next night, he greeted us at the door, and asked if we would have him come to the table, after our dinners. I told him that was affirmative, and the took great care of our table - though I feel that many had never had a Cheese Course AFTER dinner.

                                              Now, and even with my admonitions, built from the night before, our host insisted on getting two sides of everything for the table of 12. Heck, we probably had 15 lbs. of leftover sides!

                                              Maybe times ARE changing?

                                              I think that I must be missing something, as there is a great segment of US diners, who feel that if they cannot walk out with enough food to feed their entire neighborhood for a week, they were short-changed. I am just not one of those. "Here, let me super-size that for you... !" [Frown]


                                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                Neither am I, Bill, but if there's too much food, I'm going to take it with me if it's something I like and will eat later. I don't travel much, but haven't had a hotel room without a refrigerator in years and years.
                                                I also have no problem bringing meat scraps home for the dog. Too much food is wasted, per the OP's original subject. I do have concerns about that. I think it's a sin to waste good food.

                                                1. re: EWSflash

                                                  While we usually have something along the lines of a "Junior Suite," the 'fridges are usually filled with various items for the "mini-bar."


                                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                    I have removed them temporarily and replaced them before we go, although I'm told that some of the ubernazi hotels have some RFID thing that charges your hotel room as soon as you take it out of the fridge. May be an urban myth or mythical deterrent from hotels, but a call to the front desk at a decent hotel should straighten things out.

                                                    You make no bones about the fact that you don't do leftovers. I respect your obviously experienced opinion, but we don't dine at the same level that you do. Fact is, I like leftovers. I don't scrape the whole table off into the styro container, but I do like having last night's leftover pasta for breakfast the next day.

                                                2. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  I am surprised by the cheese as dessert controversy as it is quite common to see it on dessert menus anymore. When we see it as an app, we usually just order it for dessert if we choose to have dessert, and I've not yet encountered any shocked visages over it. As an app, I fail to see its lure.

                                                  1. re: Lambowner

                                                    In the US, it seems common to order a Cheese Course as an app., but in many other parts of the world, it is a prelude to a dessert course - just not in the US.

                                                    I also fail to see any lure to having a full Cheese Course AS an app., and the Fromagier felt the same way - though it appeared that many servers did not feel that way.

                                                    At most restaurants, where we dine, around the globe, the Cheese Course will come after the Main Course, but before the Dessert Course.

                                                    Personally, I want MY Cheese Course to be after the Main Course, and before any Dessert Course. I do not want it as an Appetizer Course, but maybe that is just me?


                                                  2. re: Bill Hunt

                                                    At restaurants where we know that the portions are too large, we often split things...especially if they will do it in the kitchen. I would much prefer that smaller portions be made available, but unfortunately that's not happening. Is it any wonder that obesity is epidemic in the US?

                                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                      Sadly, as I read this I'm watching a Travel Channel show celebrating restaurants that feature grotesquely enormous portions and one morbidly obese American after another raving about them.

                                            2. re: hotoynoodle

                                              I don't understand the staying in a hotel connection here. Many hotel rooms have fridges these days. I often take leftovers to have for breakfast if it is really good, Indeed, if something is really, really, really good and I can't finish it, I've been known to take it and keep it in the ice bucket to have either as a midnight snack or for breakfast!

                                              1. re: susancinsf

                                                Many resorts might well have 'fridges, with room for some leftover, however, how many are really good, with no heating? Some might well be, but how many?


                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  Just gt back to town. The hotel we stayed in had a microwave and little fridge. We didn't use the microwave, but I felt better for having had it there.
                                                  Also, I don't always need my leftovers heated up. My guilty feral pleasure.

                                          2. re: sagewisdom

                                            That's a very kind gesture, but I would bet it just ends up in the trash

                                          3. re: FattyDumplin

                                            You may be surprised to learn that a LOT of expensive food items like steaks, lobsters are not really thrown away by kitchen staff in a 'Ma and Pa' restaurant. For example if a Porter house steak comes back with one knife cut in it indicating the guest cut into the steak and didn't like what they saw then that steak is going to have any cut piece removed and it's going into the walk-in for some one to eat at home. A lobster that hasn't been touched? Same thing. Uneaten bread rolls can find their way to two or three or more tables during service. That steak that's undercooked and sent back can be 'resized' and re-fired and sent to another table. It can end up cubed in a nice tasty 'BB' the next day or so. LOTS and LOTS of 'things' happen in back-of-house'.
                                            Obviously very little of this goes on in 'chain' restaurants but in Ma and Pa's barely making it anyway you bet.

                                            1. re: Puffin3

                                              these practices are all flagrant health code violations, regardless of who owns the shop. whether big city or small town an inspector could rightfully shut the place down on the spot.

                                              i spent 20+ years toiling in restaurants, have friends who have done it even longer, and NEVER seen nor heard anything like that happening. eating the cost of an overcooked steak is pennies compared to being forcibly closed and your code failures printed in the local paper.

                                        2. I'm the same way. I feel like it's a huge waste to send food back if it's still edible, even if it wasn't done to my desires. I know I probably shouldn't feel that way since I am paying for the food and likely the restaurant folks want me to be happy as a customer, but I dunno, I just have a hard time with it.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: juliejulez

                                            If you have zero desire for satisfaction, regarding what you ordered, then so be it.

                                            I work hard for my dining $'s, and demand satisfaction. If the restaurant gets it wrong, that is their problem, and disposal of their mistakes, is again... their problem.

                                            Sorry to want what I ordered, but that is how it is.


                                          2. I do know what you're saying, but remember that you're paying for a service, and you should get exactly what you pay for.

                                            To extrapolate to the absurd, if you went to the dealership to buy (say) a black Ford F 150 and they gave you a perfectly good white one, would you keep it? Lots of folks can't afford their own vehicles.

                                            Don't feel guilty for asking for what you paid for.

                                            1. I have no problem sending back something that was not prepared as I requested it. If I order a steak rare and it comes well done, it is going to get wasted whether I send it back or not because I will not eat it.

                                              I have an issue with people I see at buffets who come back with one overflowing plate after another but don't eat even a fraction of what they took. I find that to be incredibly wasteful.

                                              I am also very careful not to waste food at home. My main concern there is really about not wasting money but it goes hand in hand with the total concept.

                                              1. Food that has been plated and served cannot be served to someone else, but I would imagine that the kitchen staff can and does consume your cut, but not eaten steak. Also I'll wager that a steak such as yours may be incorporated in some different preparation of a beef dish. Or, maybe not.

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: Virginian

                                                  I doubt it would get reused in any way in the kitchen. In the restaurant I worked in many years ago, it would have gone into a doggie bag for some employee.

                                                  1. re: GH1618

                                                    Well, I figured I was pretty far out on the limb regarding the second part of my post.