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Do table manners dictate finishing everything on the plate, or leaving a little bit of food?
August 23, 2004 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Do current table manners in your part of the world suggest you should finish everything on your plate or leave a little? [More inside.]

Traditional etiquette everywhere seems to be moving in the Japanese direction - "eat it all up to show you appreciate the bounty offered you." However, in some cultures (Asian as well as European, as far as I know) cleaning your plate is taken to mean you want more - or, at least, that you could perhaps have done with a little more, thank you very much. Hence the old rule that you should leave just a little, to show that you've had your fill or, in the more dainty, genteel versions, that you aren't a pig.

Where do things stand nowadays, in your neck of the woods, inasmuch as table manners still matter? As someone who has many foreign friends I confess I'm befuddled. For the record, I still follow my parents' rule: always ask for second helpings and then leave a little. But, increasingly, I find my hosts offended by less than thoroughly wiped and hoovered plates...
posted by MiguelCardoso to Society & Culture (34 answers total)
 
Eating out in America makes it almost impossible to finish everything on your plate. Serving sizes at restaurants are enormous, enough to last for several meals.

Eating with family on major holidays, in my experience, is defined by excessive food. You pile your plate, eat it all, pile it again, and stop when you're full--regardless of how much or little is on your plate when the stopping kind comes.

Eating with friends or family at one anothers' homes, I think it's OK to leave food on your plate if you are done eating and don't want anymore. It's also OK to clear your plate, or take seconds. The important thing is not to take the last serving out of any communal serving dishes. If you finish it all, but there is still more food on the serving dishes, it's like you ate abundantly but you're not hungry for more.

So...it feels like the young lower-middle class Americans and the middle-aged upper-middle class Americans I know live without any defined food finishing etiquette.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:21 PM on August 23, 2004


I was not poor as a child, but "waste not, want not" was instilled in me at a young age.

Even so, I would not purposefully stuff myself in a show of etiquette, nor would I purposely not finish my meal if I was hungry as a show of etiquette.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:24 PM on August 23, 2004


Miguel, were you purposefully waiting for this Ask MetaFilter thread number?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:26 PM on August 23, 2004


On the rare, rare occasion that I have dinner in a place where table manners are of any significance, I tend to go with leaving a very little bit. From North America, however, I have to say table etiquette is all but dead.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:30 PM on August 23, 2004


Japan: If you want a second serving of rice, you leave a little bit of rice at the bottom of the rice bowl.

If you are finished, be sure to eat every grain of rice. Leaving even one grain of rice would be considered rude.

An increasing number of Japanese people are ignoring this rule but, when you consider the effort that goes into bringing that one grain of rice to the table (from the farmer to the person who just cleaned and cooked the rice), it is a good idea to show your gratitude by eating it all.

Krrrlson: Table etiquette is dying here in Japan, too.

China: Cleaning off your plate is considered rude. It tells the host that the amount of food offered was insufficient and that you could have eaten more. Always leave something when you are eating in a Chinese culture.

Note 1: This applies to food, not drinks. When toasting with an alcoholic beverage it is generally better to drink it all in one shot (to the last drop). In Shangdong, the custom was to turn your glass upside down immediately after downing it to 'prove' that it was all gone (fun and games... followed by consultations with the big white telephone).

Note 2: If you are at an "all you can eat" then you *should* eat everything that you put onto your plate, even in a Chinese culture. I know of one Chinese "all you can eat" seafood restaurant (heaven, indeed) that charges you a penalty for leaving food on your plate. The fine was based on the weight of the seafood wasted.

Personal Opinion: With the exception of Chinese cultures, I will generally eat a plate clean to show my appreciation for the food and send a non-verbal message to the host that the food was delicious.

I would be very interested to know if there are any other countries or cultures where this would be considered rude.
posted by cup at 9:51 PM on August 23, 2004


I was raised(in the U.S.) with the idea that you eat what serve yourself, clean your plate, waste not want not, etc. I don't follow that as an adult since I think it's impolite, not to mention unpleasant, to stuff yourself because you put too much on your plate. I do try to take smaller portions to avoid leaving a bunch of food though. I don't think it's rude to leave some food nor is it rude to eat everything.

On the Persian-American side of our family though, cleaning your plate often leads to ta'rofing and you can end up with more food on your plate. Finish that and you might get even more. However, leave any food and the cook will probably be insulted. My approach is take a small first serving so I have room for the second that I will be pressed to have.

I would guess in the U.S. and other places with higher numbers of immigrants, the answers might depend on the culture not the location.
posted by lobakgo at 10:09 PM on August 23, 2004


This should help you.

BTW: Burping is a compliment in the Frozen Tundra of Canada.
posted by shepd at 11:07 PM on August 23, 2004


I disagree with your interpretation of China, cup. If you are somehow able to finish everything given to you, it's not you who is being rude, but the host. It's the host's responsiblity to order twice as much food as could humanly be eaten by everyone at the table.

Cleaning your plate while going out with a Chinese person has never been a remote possibility for me anyway, even when I've gone out with dirt poor students. They always order way too much food, and the improprieties that you should try to avoid committing are 1) eating too fast. If you're someone's guest, dinner should last at least an hour or two, and they'll constantly be trying to get you to eat this or that. You gotta eat much slower than you normally would. 2) not fighting for the bill. You've got to make a sincere effort to try to pay the bill, even if it's clear beforehand that they were going to pay.
posted by alidarbac at 11:09 PM on August 23, 2004


I disagree with your interpretation of China, cup. If you are somehow able to finish everything given to you, it's not you who is being rude, but the host. It's the host's responsiblity to order twice as much food as could humanly be eaten by everyone at the table.

I agree. However since Chinese meals are generally eaten family style it's a bit different than western meals in terms of what it means to finish off your plate. Just based on my experiences I'd clean off my plate and always expect the host to offer you another serving, no matter how many servings you've already had, and it's not rude to decline after you've had at least an additional serving of food.
posted by gyc at 11:27 PM on August 23, 2004


In India, it is generally considered polite to finish what you put on your plate. However, nobody will really consider you rude if you couldn't do that, either because you were stuffed or you didn't like the food.

I think a good rule of thumb is to start with small quantities to sample everything, and then take some more. Should work at most places.
posted by madman at 11:35 PM on August 23, 2004


U.K. It depends on who you're eating with really, where they're from, and what age they are. The further north you go, then the more likely you're going to be given a huge plate of food with the implicit rule that if you finish, then you want more. The older generations are more likely to expect you to finish everything on your plate. I suspect that this has more yo do with the fact that they lived through rationing than anything else. Then there are cultural differences. I have vivid memories of horrifying a jewish lady when I was younger by accepting (and finishing) every new helping / new course I was offered.

Most people aren't that bothered though. If you finish, then you'll be offered more, but neither situations will cause offence.

HSBC also have an advert on this subject based around Chinese eating habits.
posted by seanyboy at 12:05 AM on August 24, 2004


Alidarbac:

I disagree with your interpretation of China, cup.

It is not my interpretation of China. It is an answer to Miguel's question based on my experience in Chinese cultures (both in mainland China and other parts of Asia). It is also backed up by a variety of sources online and off.

If you are somehow able to finish everything given to you, it's not you who is being rude, but the host. It's the host's responsiblity to order twice as much food as could humanly be eaten by everyone at the table.

While that is an interesting way to look at it, it does little to answer Miguel's question - to clean or not to clean. Miguel didn't ask about being a host, he asked about being a guest.

Your other two points about eating fast and paying the bill also ignore Miguel's question.

Please show some respect for the person asking the question and the people who have answered it correctly.

If you want to play "my interpretation of China is bigger than yours" then do it on your own blog, not in AskMeFi.

Thanks.

Lobakgo and ShepD: Thank you for the cool links! :)
posted by cup at 12:39 AM on August 24, 2004


To go with gyc said, go ahead and eat as much as you want. It doesn't really matter whether you clear off your little plate or your rice bowl. If you do clear the bowl, no matter how many hours you've been eating, the host is still going to insist on you eating some more. You adamantly refuse. The host will dump some more food on your plate anyway. It doesn't matter whether you eat that food because whether it is in your little bowl or on the main plate in the middle of the table, it's going to get thrown away anyways.

In other words, there's absolutely no need to hold back for etiquette's sake. Indeed, it'll be impossible to hold back. You will literally have to quarrel with your host in order to not eat as much as you possibly could fit into your stomach.
posted by alidarbac at 1:09 AM on August 24, 2004


If you are finished, be sure to eat every grain of rice. Leaving even one grain of rice would be considered rude.

I often heard "ippai" (I'm full) from Japanese friends while they leave half their plate untouched. The lack of observation to this rule seems to be almost 100% in my own experience. I'm not saying you're wrong at all, just that so many Japanese seem to have forgotten this one.....

Cleaning off your plate is considered rude. It tells the host that the amount of food offered was insufficient and that you could have eaten more. Always leave something when you are eating in a Chinese culture.

My Rough Guide to Thailand tells me the exact same thing about Thailand. When I mentioned it to some people there, they either said "yeah, but nobody's going to expect YOU [a foreigner] to observe such a rule" or "oh it doesn't matter...this is an old tradition nobody follows anymore anyway".
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:50 AM on August 24, 2004


In East Europe - Hungary in particular - it isn't rude to leave food on your plate, but it is considered rude to not eat all the bread left in the house, no matter how stale it has gotten. Everybody has grown up with Mom, dad, or Granny freaking out about how "during the War we couldn't get bread." It also has to do with how food is served - at a family dinner you serve yourself from common plates of food, so you are at least expected to eat as much as you put on your plate.

I was in Romania last week, in a small village, where our host cooked huge amounts of potatoes fried with huge slabs of bacon fat on an outdoor "disk" set over coals. She also made a huge loaf of fresh bread daily. Anything we didn't eat became breakfast, and anything after that went to feed chickens and pigs.

While I was there I was at a Gypsy wedding, where food - meat and potatoes, stew, or soup - was served about every two hours over an eighteen hour period. Nobody could finish everything but abundance was the theme of the evening anyway. And these are folks who do not eat meat all that often.
posted by zaelic at 2:23 AM on August 24, 2004


my understanding, based on the various regions of the US i've been in as an adult, is that in restaurants it makes no difference in terms of polite/rude whether or not you belong to the clean plate club. in restaurants, it's merely rude to eat off other people's plates. if you insist upon sampling the other diners' dinners, they're supposed to offer, cut a small piece and place it on your plate.

in homes, it's a different matter entirely. in american homes, i've run across every convention from it being rude to leave food on your plate; it being rude to snarf everything up; it being rude to ask for seconds; it being rude to refuse them. i don't think there's ever been a standard american custom in this particular area, but rather different ones depending upon your class, which nation your family came here from, what sort of dinner it was (holiday, weekday, family-only), and what part of the states (north, south, east, west, rural, urban, suburban) you're sitting in.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:43 AM on August 24, 2004


Uh oh. I didn't know about these secret rules. All those places I never got invited back to, it was because I didn't eat all my peas?

I always figured if that if you leave anything behind it suggests you didn't like it. At least that's my greedy excuse. (South east UK upbringing if that makes any difference.)
posted by penguin pie at 8:00 AM on August 24, 2004


I know this isn't an etiquette-based question, but I can only say that I was brought up (in the US) with the "clean your plate" rule, and I don't think you're doing a kid any favors when you do that. I still find myself eating past the point of being full, just cause there's still food on my plate.
posted by LairBob at 8:48 AM on August 24, 2004


Growing up in the US in the 70s with my particular parents there weren't any real rules about how much food to leave. My general feeling is like crush-onastick, it varies tremendously from house to house and the best you can hope for is for what you do to not be terribly rude at the place you are going. In my house it was perfectly okay to not eat something on your plate that you didn't like [or not get served any of it at all] but I remember this being not at all okay when I would go visit friends. My Mom told me that her parents were a bit uptight about the "clean your plate" rule but that she had never liked that and was not passing it down to our generation.

When I lived briefly in Romania my experience was like zaelic's where if you served yourself x% of what was left of the soup/bread/cabbage you were expected to eat it since the portions were often small [most family meals when I was there were quite modest] and it was assumed that you served yourself what you intended to eat. I did find that turning down an offer of liquor was often seen as rude to the host. Even though I wasn't much of a drinker, I would try to at least have a shot or two of whatever the local brandy was to try to be a good guest.
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on August 24, 2004


Northern UK working class upbringing says eat what you're given, and eat all of it, regardless of whether you like it or not. And when I was young, it was more than likely to be like it not. If you leave food, it says you're rejecting it because it was inedible, and that's rude, spoilt and wasteful. And you should expect a derisory oh, didn't you like your mushy peas, then? from the person collecting the plates. There is no easy answer to this. If you claim you loved them but you're full right now, then of course they get put in the fridge for later.

Although of course it depends what exactly you're given - you'd be hard-pressed to be justifiably chastised for leaving big cow bones.

On the other hand, I lived with a girl once (from Hampshire - different universe) who was pathologically incapable of cleaning her plate. Maybe it was a comfort/security thing. Even if you gave her a single pea for dinner, she'd still cut a little bit off and leave it on the side.
posted by nylon at 10:12 AM on August 24, 2004


Middle class, Chile, no particular rule.
posted by signal at 10:29 AM on August 24, 2004


eat what you're given, and eat all of it, regardless of whether you like it or not
That rule applies to the bairns, not the guests, and is probably country-wide.
If you don't eat your meat, how can you have any pudding...

Visiting families of friends who live further north than York is often a nightmare. Not only do you get given way too much food, but if you finish it, you're just given more. Sometimes, you're not even asked if you want more. And then, when you've failed to extinguish what's been placed on your plate, then it's time for pudding. And not just any pudding either. Northern Pudding.

shudders
posted by seanyboy at 10:36 AM on August 24, 2004


in american homes, i've run across every convention...

I think it's extremely rude to impose your arbitrary little neurotic rules on dinner guests. But maybe that's just me.
posted by majcher at 10:53 AM on August 24, 2004


As a child in the Midwest US I was always encouraged to be a member of the 'Clean Plate Club.' Now I eat until I am no longer hungry, if I have misjudged and have extra chow on my plate I assure my host that the food was good and that I am satiated. If I clean every last morsel from my plate I assure my host that the food was good an that I am satiated. That said, I never really get 'full' so providing enough food for me would be hard to do.

I think a person will always be safe, leftovers or no, by quite frankly expressing gratitude for the meal and hospitality.
posted by sciurus at 11:14 AM on August 24, 2004


we were taught to eat what we took. then again, we were taught not to take more than we could eat. but i still feel that it's not right to leave anything on the plate. unless of course you take it home with you.

(midwestern US)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:17 AM on August 24, 2004


My grandmother may have been the template for the stereotypical Jewish Grandmother. Whenever she was having my family over for dinner, she'd prepare an impossible amount of food (I remember one dinner consisting of chicken soup, spaghetti, fried chicken, salad, a couple desserts, and probably a few things I'm forgetting), and then be offended when we didn't finish all of it. Not all on our plates--all that she cooked.

"What, you don't like my cooking?" she would ask, genuinely hurt.
posted by adamrice at 11:53 AM on August 24, 2004


in [American] restaurants, it's merely rude to eat off other people's plates. if you insist upon sampling the other diners' dinners, they're supposed to offer, cut a small piece and place it on your plate.

That, like everything else here, depends on who you're with. I much prefer my groups of friends who sample from my plate while I sample from theirs, without asking beyond maybe an inquisitive eyebrow raise. Arms across plates, forks stabbing here and there, knives flashing in the candle light. We're not having caviar and steak when we do this, of course, but all the same, it seems kind of like a testament to deeper friendship. It also means that if someone has made a bad menu choice (because it wasn't what they thought it would be, because it wasn't made the way they like it but it wasn't worth sending back, because they were playing foreign-food-lotto, etc.) they haven't completely wasted their money and won't feel completely stupid. There's always a chance someone at the table will go, "So it's boiled lamb's kidney, is it? Yum! I'll have some."
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:03 PM on August 24, 2004


Do current table manners in your part of the world suggest you should finish everything on your plate or leave a little?
At a restaurants, they have "doggie bags”, ok to leave food.
At home, a majority of your meal was finished, ok to leave food.
As a guest, finish all on my plate then clear it off the table showing full gratitude.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:17 PM on August 24, 2004


then clear plate off the table table showing full gratitude.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:26 PM on August 24, 2004


Here in Korea, it is a slightly odd situation. Relatively recent poverty (and current, for many, still) means that there are some unexpected food preferences -- for example, fatty meat over lean.

One would expect that there would be a clean-it-all-up-every-shred mentality emerging out of that recently-poor mindset as well, but South Korea apparently throws away more food as garbage than North Korea produces, yearly, or did as recently as a couple of years back (no time to hunt up a link, sorry). This is, of course, deeply shameful, or would be, if anyone gave a shit.

The reasons, for the most part, I think, are twofold 1) food is served in a myriad of small dishes. A meal consists of some rice, probably soup or stew of some kind, and about a million side dishes. I've been out to dinner with a few people where there were literally more than 100 plates on the table. Taking the last bit off a little plate is considered to mean you're greedy, or will become fat. The leftovers *shudder* often get recycled for the next customer, but as often get chucked 2) Recent poverty has created a strong conspicuous-consumption urge, a blustery need to show how rich one is, a little like the potlach culture of the Pacific Coast aboriginal people of Canada. Throwing away food is part of that -- 'see, I am rich and fat enough to toss perfectly good food! Bow before my swollen belly!'

So there you go.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:42 PM on August 24, 2004


My grandmother may have been the template for the stereotypical Jewish Grandmother. Whenever she was having my family over for dinner, she'd prepare an impossible amount of food
And mine purposely made too much so that we could take it home (we liked her cooking more than my ma's, which was fine with her because she would always say she didn't want to be known for her cooking--a feminist thing, i guess, and my grandma was thrilled because wanting to take some home was a giant compliment to her--more than cleaning the plate. She was unhappy when we didn't take some home.)

We never had to finish everything on our plates, but if we didn't eat what was considered a healthy amount (usually 3/4) we wouldn't get dessert.
posted by amberglow at 7:14 PM on August 24, 2004


plate?
posted by jonmc at 7:30 PM on August 24, 2004


A friend whose family's from Hong Kong tells me that in people's houses, leaving rice in your bowl is considered rude; although it's less of an issue in restaurants, I've noticed he always cleans his rice bowl.

He also says that, unlike western dining, he knows of no rule against taking the last piece of something from a serving plate - at least if you're eating with equals. With more venerable folks it seems more polite to allow them to get dibs.

This whole discussion has confirmed my preference for family-style eating. I find the notion of some other person deciding what and how much goes on my plate bizarre, and I'm a white anglophone Canadian.
posted by zadcat at 7:32 PM on August 24, 2004


jonmc wins.
posted by majcher at 11:13 AM on August 31, 2004


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