Eating Strangers' Leftovers Is Fine. In Fact, Everyone Should Do It

Why let boring old social convention hold you back, hey?
A man eating four plates of food at an empty table
Stock photo: Julian Master

Picture the scene: You’re in a not-particularly-fancy Italian restaurant and the people next to you get up from their table and walk out, leaving behind a few perfectly good slices of pizza. It’s weird to grab the slice, right? But should it be

Hear me out: Surely, like me, you’ve been tempted before, even if it was just that one time you were starving and an hour into waiting for your own food. But it seems that admitting this, or indeed actually doing it, is akin to social suicide – it can even get you dumped. Recently, a woman asked parenting forum and sometime TERF hotspot Mumsnet if she should cut loose the man she's been seeing after he ate leftovers off some strangers’ plates. Let the record state: He took two pieces of cold toast, some sausages and proceeded to eat them with no plate.


“I said I would buy him lunch and he didn't need to eat leftovers. He said he couldn't stand wasted food,” she writes. “I ordered my own lunch and ate it, alone, as he had already gobbled up the leftovers from the people who had left.”

Now, clearly the element of making his date eat lunch alone is icky and ruins the whole point of bonding over a meal. But the actual premise of taking the food? Well, I’ve long shook my fist, figuratively and literally, at the archaic social convention that causes us to needlessly waste perfectly tasty food. Back when I worked in a pub, I’d routinely gobble up leftover chips, arancini balls or half-eaten steaks – and multiple people on forums, even Chris Pratt, tell me I’m not alone.

Responses to the Mumsnet post, though, range from “grim” to “repulsive”. Others called for immediate dumping and said it could only be forgiven if the man grew up in poverty. The one that really encapsulates it for me is: “I don't find it all that gross but it's a pretty unusual thing to do.” Because that’s it, really. It’s socially out of the norm. It’s precisely this social squeamishness that makes it seem so wrong. But etiquette and social convention must adapt with the times, so let me break down why I think it’s time to turn this outdated rule on its hungry head. 



Firstly, and most obviously: waste. Food waste is a huge problem in the UK and U.S., with almost ten million tonnes of food wasted from UK households, hospitality, food manufacture, retail and wholesale sectors in 2018, according to research by food waste charity WRAP. In the U.S. the National Resource Defense Council found that a shameful 40 percent of food produced, processed, and transported is wasted and ends up in landfill. 

Why not help out in the seemingly smallest of ways? Or at least don’t burn those who do at the stake. Apps like Too Good To Go are great for redistributing unwanted food, but every little helps, as someone once said. We’re in a cost of living crisis, for Christ’s sake! Twelve percent of children in the UK are living in food poverty right now and you’re grossed out when food doesn’t get chucked in the bin? 


You do realise other people have already touched your food in a restaurant? And probably quite a few of them, too? Do you think chefs wash their hands every time they scratch their nose? They’re breathing over your food the whole time. Anyway, germs are good for your immune system. If you tried to barricade yourself away from every single germ you’d end up like that sickly little twerp in The Secret Garden.

Let’s put this in context with other aspects of life: You can’t tell me you wash your hands after every use of equipment in the gym. There’s dirty doorknobs; the bus handrail, food left on the office kitchen counter – just because coworkers aren’t total strangers doesn’t mean you know anything about their cleanliness. And if you’re one of the “five second rule” food-droppers, you really don’t have a leg to stand on.


The thrill factor

A certain spark of joy is kindled when you get free food, like finding a fiver in your pocket or getting a BBC news alert that Suella Braverman has been sacked. When I was smashing those half-eaten steaks as a pub waiter, I was about 21 – I wasn’t forking out for steak elsewhere. As for the time I found a fresh, steaming box of Chinese noodles on top of (or in, depending on how you look at it) a bin at a music festival, well, it felt like I’d won the lottery. Take that, Big Festival! You can’t make me spend £15 on your soggy cardboard box of tarted-up slop!

In conclusion: It’s fine

Once upon a time, it was considered déclassé to take your own leftovers home from a restaurant, and now look how far we’ve come. Taking other people’s leftovers is the next frontier – it just needs a rebrand. How about “swiping”? Urban foraging? “Table diving” is already a proud tradition at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where students – including Steve Jobs, supposedly – hover around the dirty tray area picking up scraps of unfinished food. Just last month, some 30-year-old grown-men friends of mine polished off an abandoned meal left by two people on a date who were concerned with eyelash batting than eating.

My call to arms is this: Let’s make swiping leftovers as common as an exposed dick on Omegle (RIP). Let’s just full-steam ahead till to swipe or not to swipe is never in question. There may be a sliding scale when it comes to the leftovers spectrum – from whole food items like chips to fork-contaminated food like pasta and stuff with bite marks – but each to their own. We live in a world where it’s impressive for people to say they only buy secondhand for eco reasons. Why can’t we also live in one where no one bats an eyelid as I tuck into your scraps?