5 Holiday Leftover Etiquette Questions Answered

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

The holidays offer up a bounty of tasty side dishes, decadent main dishes, and an array of sweets. Turkey! Stuffing! Mashed potatoes! Pecan pie! And when you see how much food is left after the feast — and there’s almost always a lot — it’s understandable to want to snag a few spoonfuls for later.

But leftover etiquette can be a contentious undertaking. There’s a lot of confusion around who’s entitled to what: Is it your duty as a host to offer your guests leftovers? If you’re a guest, is it rude or considerate to bring your own containers in anticipation of next-day treats?

Fear not! We’re here to help. Here are five common etiquette questions surrounding leftovers answered.

1. If you contribute a dish to a Friendsgiving, can you take your own leftovers home?

No. That green bean casserole you brought was a gift to the host and everyone who is attending the Friendsgiving. You should not expect to bring any leftovers home.

2. Can you ask for your food back if the host never served it?

Again, no. Asking for your food back is rude. I know it can seem like you’re doing a favor — “Here, let me take that off your hands” — but it can come across as being stingy. Now, if the host asks you if you want to take your food home with you because it was never served, by all means, indulge them. But don’t make it a point to angle for your pecan pie when you notice it sat on the counter untouched.

3. Is it okay to ask guests to bring their own to-go containers?

Yes! Totally okay! In fact, we encourage it. Not only does it free your guest from the burden of scheduling a time to return your Tupperware to you, but it also takes the burden off you to provide containers for everyone. It’s a win-win for all.

A corollary: If you’re a guest and you want to bring to-go containers, that’s fine. Just keep them stashed in your bag until it’s clear that leftovers are being distributed.

4. What’s the best way to keep your guests from walking away with all the leftovers?

As with so many things, honesty is your best policy. If your guest asks to take home your turkey carcass, the one you’ve been looking forward to turning into velvety stock all week, tell them, respectfully, that you’d prefer if they didn’t. If they insist, you may have to yield, but make note (and maybe don’t invite them next year).

Alternately, you could take a more clandestine approach. Here, speed is your friend. Put leftover food away quickly before anyone gets up from the table at the end of the meal. Shove bowls and plates into microwaves and empty ovens! If the food’s out of sight, then guests are less likely to ask for it if they meander into your kitchen.

5. Can you donate your leftovers?

I applaud you for wanting to share your food surplus, but it’s a risky endeavor. Perishable food needs to be kept at certain temperatures to be safe, which can be tricky for home cooks.

What’s more, most shelters and food banks only accept new and pre-packaged food. The City Harvest Q&A page should give you a good idea of the kinds of restrictions most places use when accepting donated food. If you’re in doubt, call your local pantry, food bank, church, or homeless shelter to see what their food donation policies are.

Keep in mind, though, that you may also share your leftovers with your local fire fighters, EMT responders, or animal shelter staff. Call first to see if they’re open to the idea.

Your turn: What’s your most awkward leftover experience?