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Doggy bags for saving leftovers in restaurants are extremely common in the USA, especially as portions sizes are usually too large to consume in one meal.

But I have read in various forums that it isn't socially acceptable to ask for a box for leftovers in France, and that some restaurants don't even have take-home boxes available. Is this true? If so, are there alternatives to having uneaten food thrown away and wasted? What do the locals do if they can't finish their meal?

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This is true for most of Europe, as far as I know. At the very least it's fairly uncommon in UK and Italy as well. – UncleZeiv Dec 3 '12 at 16:38
28-year old Belgian here - last week was the first time in my life I ever asked for a "doggy bag", and only because I'd seen it on TV and thought I'd try it once. The waiter was real friendly and went out of their way to accommodate me, but one could easily see they were not used to doing so very often - they didn't have any special boxes or bags. Still, asking after you finished can never hurt - and if they do, a tip (or atleast dessert+coffee) is appropriate. If they don't, well, ask for the bill, pay it and don't tip. Tipping is not expected in Belgium – Konerak Dec 3 '12 at 19:15
It would be considered very inappropriate in most coutries other than the USA. – R-traveler Dec 3 '12 at 20:53
Portions should be manageable in French restaurants so usually people don't "waste" anything :) A typical French meal in a restaurant would consist in a starter, a main dish and a dessert, but when you're getting full, you're just skipping the dessert and don't end up throwing away anything. (Or if you're not too hungry, just don't go for the 3 courses). – Fanny H. Dec 4 '12 at 2:02
@R-traveler it's common practice in Canada as well. – Vince Dec 4 '12 at 7:40
up vote 40 down vote accepted

As a French native, I discovered this practice in North America. I never asked for a doggy bag in France, nor have I seen someone do it. So it is likely restaurants don't even have boxes.

You can obviously take out food from fast-food restaurants but for regular restaurants I don't think it is correct behaviour. I usually finish my dishes, I only order what I can eat. I believe that is what most people do. Sharing your dish with your friends/family is also common practice. You can still ask to have a small portion if you eat really little, I did not see this that much but I guess the waiter will do what he can.

You can still try to ask, if you are not in a very classy restaurant or a restaurant you go everyday, the worst you risk is an awkward atmosphere when the waiter says no.

EDIT: There is a recent article from the New York Times on the topic, Lyon (a city in France) and the Rhône-Alpes region introduced the doggie bag (called "gourmet bag") in order to reduce food waste. The article describes how the French have a hard time using it. I think it develops an interesting argument that in France, eating out is not seen as "feeding", but more as enjoying a meal, for the fine food and for the place: "Dining out is thus a rare experience, to be enjoyed in situ, not bundled up in plastic foam containers and reheated in the microwave.".

So if you go to Lyon (and you should go ;)), you should be able to ask for a "gourmet bag" without the waiter being too surprised.

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Anyway, in classy restaurants, portion sizes tend to be too small rather than too large. – mouviciel Dec 3 '12 at 16:02

I live in Paris in France, and I never saw anyone doing that, so I'll advise you to avoid it, because you'll probably create quite an awkward atmosphere, even in a "not very classy" restaurant.

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Don't even try it, it may send an already obnoxious Parisien waiter over the edge. He'll likely pretend to not understand what you're saying.

European portion sizes tend to be manageable for most normal people unless you go to an American themed 'restaurant' that engages in the likes of rib eating competitions.

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Funny, but I've never had an obnoxious waiter in Paris. But here in the states, I've had some lazy ones that hide out in the back, away from the summons of a customer. – boatcoder Mar 4 '14 at 23:02

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