During my visit to the US, of the many things that stood out to me as weird, food was a major shock. Although I’m not one to eat in a gluttonous way, I make sure I eat every last morsel of food on my plate even if it means eating beyond my capacity. Food wastage is one of my biggest concerns and I have strong opinions about people who order too much and not eat what they got. And so the sheer amount of food in American restaurants I visited overwhelmed me. Not only were the portion sizes ridiculous but almost none of my fellow-diners managed to finish their meal. Perhaps it’s because American culture is so ingrained in sugary sodas and crunchy mid-meal snacks that no one has the stomach for a proper meal.
Regardless, the first time I was at a restaurant, it pained me to see my friends struggle to finish theirs while I ate my larger-than-necessary serving in the most polite way I could. My friends gave up while I was still eating. We had copious food left on the table and I was preparing myself to see all that food go to trash. Just then the waiter stopped by our table and asked my friends, “Would you like a box?”
The next five minutes threw unfamiliar scenes at me. Our waiter brought us a handful of of carry boxes. Leaving them at the table, he smiled at me while I stared in surprise. One by one, my friends scooped up the food on their plates into the boxes. They were taking the leftovers home.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for that unexpected turn of events. Within minutes I had gone from mild irritation, to suppression, to unexpected joy, and then to growing shame.
It was only later that I realised how common it is at restaurants in the US. I felt nonplussed all of a sudden—happy, yes, but confused nonetheless. I felt proud of my American friends for their responsibility and candour. They didn’t care if the food had grown cold. For as long as it’s edible, they ate it.
In stark contrast, where I grew up, almost everyone who doesn’t finish their meal at a restaurant leaves it for the trash can. In all my life, only a handful of times have I seen someone asking the waiter to pack up leftovers. And even then, it was the waiter or the kitchen staff who’d pack it up. Even at home, my society has conditioned people to expect warm, fresh-cooked food three times a day. Left overs and cooking disasters often went to domestic helpers. It’s a disgusting habit, I admit, that my society cultivates along with other home and cultural traits.
That’s why, having grown up seeing and seething at such incidents, I felt a little better at eating out in America than I do at home. I knew that even if I couldn’t finish my serving, I wouldn’t have to choose between forcing myself and throwing away food. A habit we could borrow from our western friends.