Why Do Thais Waste So Much Food in Restaurants


If you’ve ever been to a restaurant in Thailand then you may have noticed Thais like to eat in the company of others, be it family or friends. You may also have observed the many dishes which each table has present and how when it comes to paying the bill there is always so much food leftover. So why do Thais waste so much food in a country by no means poor, but hardly classed as well-to-do in the world’s league of wealth.

Many westerners find it hard to understand why their Thai partners order so many dishes when they visit restaurants, food in such liberal amounts there’s no way those seated for the meal can possibly eat it all. I reason that Thais apparent wasteful restaurant ways can be put down to their culture, but in their everyday lives their cavalier approach to social dining is replaced with a penny-wise one in their own homes. I’ll put the latter in batter first and explain my experience of Thais economical approach to food at home.

My 12 years of travelling to Thailand has included a lot of time spent in Thai villages and through that experience I have seen at firsthand Thais practical approach to food wastage. It’s one which is a world away from most westerners wasteful and pound-foolish attitude toward food at home. I’m sure food sell-by dates were the brainchild of a supermarket conglomerate president.

Thais tend to throw away very little food, the size of their dustbins in comparison to western ones are surely the greatest proof of that. What’s not eaten in the evening is almost certainly consumed the next day.

In the UK leftovers from snacks and dinners are too often castaway just minutes after the table has been cleared, but in Thailand an unfinished spicy evening meal often forms a part of the next day’s mid morning brunch. If there’s still unwanted food after the meal is over then the family dog or chickens are liable to get the leftover scraps.

Thais waste very little food in their own households which is in stark comparison to the wasteful ways of westerners but in restaurants Thais seem to have a much more extravagant attitude.

In western society a birthday or work promotion can often lead to its recipient inviting a gathering of work colleagues or friends and family to a restaurant. When the celebratory meal is finished the sight of empty plates and dishes is a sure sign to the western eye that their feu de joie has been a complete success. In Thailand the opposite is true. At least that’s my belief.

Hi5 might be the most popular social networking site surfed in Thailand’s internet cafes and homes but restaurant workers are more receptive to a high wai at their place of work. Thai culture dictates the elder or more socially esteemed person is usually the one who foots the restaurant bill and a restaurant’s staff will endeavour to make sure he or she receives excellent service deserving of their status among their ensemble.

Thai cultural concepts of respect and face are to my mind the two pointers to why Thais waste so much food in restaurants. An empty plate may be pleasing to a westerners train of thought but in Asian culture and therefore Thailand’s, a finished dish conveys a message of a still hungry stomach and loss of face to the group’s host.

I believe Thais view unfinished restaurant food as an indication that each and every person seated around the table has eaten to the full. It is also seen as a high sign of respect to the restaurant’s owner that they have been more than generous with their servings.

What’s your views on Thais food wastage in restaurants and their economical food employment in their own homes.

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© 2011, Martyn. All rights reserved.

21 thoughts on “Why Do Thais Waste So Much Food in Restaurants

  1. Martyn great post but I am at odds with you here. I agree they order loads of dishes but usually any leftovers is taken home in doggy bags.

    Perhaps its a PKK thing(doggy bag)?

  2. Mike thanks for the read. Wilai and her mother have called for a doggy bag before but in doing so there has been leftover food at the table which goes along with my post content. Luckily WW has four dogs so the bigger the bag the better. The dogs do eventually get a little bit of it after the best bits have been eaten.

  3. I think you’re on the right track Martyn, I’ve definitely seen to much food ordered in restaurants, while at home I’m gently admonished if I push any kao to the side of the plate. Respect for the host perhaps, on private occasions, but on the other hand I’ve not been made to feel guilty of a ‘faux pas’ if I’ve demolished every scrap of a delicious meal when invited out in Thailand, and still looked hungry afterwards.

    Perhaps a status thing too? If you can afford to buy excessive amounts in restaurants, or produce too much to eat at home, is there a kudos thing, Thai flavour, involved.

    Interestingly, we’ve spent a year in France doing up out farm with the help of volunteers from http://HelpX.net who have had accommodation and food, three meals a day, courtesy of my Thai partner. I’ve sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t have been cheaper to employ builders/plasterers etc on a commercial basis! Ploy has insisted on feeding them vast quantities with several courses every meal bar breakfast. When we’ve been hosting up to 10 helpers, imagine the supermarket bill!!

  4. Pete I’ve discussed this topic many times before with mates who have travelled to Thailand and they all were amazed at the amount of dishes Thais ordered in restaurants. Far too many.

    I didn’t consider the status angle to it, that makes a lot of sense, especially in a busy restaurant.

    The photo at the top of the post shows food ordered by Wilai for me and her. I think I managed to polish off the chips or French fries to you. That’s quite a spread for two people and we didn’t get close to finishing it all. There might be another dish or two out of shot.

    Your local supermarket checkout girls must think you’re either a sex maniac with a lot of children or one hell of an eater. There’s more status attached to the former.

  5. Please bare/bear with me. I am Australian so I struggle with the English language let alone the French one. Something in my deep past reminds me of Feu de joie. Perhaps completely wrong but it tells me that in the military when at ceremonial occasions rifles are pointed in the air and fired it is called the same or similar. In the “olden days” when muskets where used they tended to go off at differing times so you would have a line of muskets going “off” one after another. In our time the military are trained to “fire” along the line one after another. Enough of that. My “Grandpop” was Welsh, my Grandmother” or “Nanna” was English. On a few occasions my Grandpop would ask my Nanna “Kit” (Catherine) “If I don’t eat this tonight will you put it on my lunch tomorrow?” Kit “Yes Rhyce I will”. Grandpop “Then I had better eat it tonight”.

    Same, same, but different, little bit, MAYBE. K

  6. Kris thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right with your description for Feu de joie, you couldn’t have worded it better. It translates to English as ‘fire of joy’ and can be used as a term of celebration. It can also mean a bonfire lit as a show of celebration.

    I like your story about your Grandfather and Grandmother, Nanna Kit sounds like she was one smart cookie and Grandpop an even cleverer one.

  7. Martyn, to tell the truth I’ve never noticed, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled from now on. By the way, is it rude to stare at someone else’s plate in Thailand? 😉

    When I’ve eaten at restaurants, its never been with a majority of khon Thai, so perhaps us farang sitting at the table made sure there were no leftovers. Eating, like you say, at a Thai home is a totally different story.

    Your theory certainly does make a lot of sense though.

  8. Snap I don’t know if it’s rude to stare at someone’s plate in a restaurant in Thailand, I’ve seen a few people having a damn good look at the bill. I know it’s rude to blow your nose in a restaurant in Thailand, very offensive indeed.

    If you see any Thai and falangs eating they tend to overdo the order, well the Thai girl normally does. If they’re from a rural area then the sight of a restaurant’s lush menu has them drooling at the mouth. They’re normally used to a very plain diet in Thai villages.

    Keep them peeled and let me know your findings.

  9. Hi Martyn, I agree that leaving food at the end of the meal in Thailand shows that you are satisfied I know that my mother-in-law gets a bit stressed when she sees too many empty plates. I guess it implies that she has been stingy with the food.

  10. Paul I think your right about your mother-in-law getting stressed over empty plates, I’m sure Thais equate that to empty stomachs rather than the western thought of full ones. Thailand’s culture and way of thinking is a fascinating subject and one which would take a lot of study to understand it.

  11. I’ve seen so many waste their food in restaurants too, perhaps to add to Martyn’s analysis – I think it’s more difficult to guess the portion of each dishes when you go to restaurants compared to cooking at home.

    And also, especially with some ladies – they just love to taste bits and pieces of each dish, then save themselves for the desserts, at least my mom and sister do this, take bits from my plate, order a salad (optional), and then order cake and ice cream (a must!).

    Personally I don’t waste any, I’d ask for a takeaway pack if I have a lot of leftovers (I’m the dog in this case), but usually I’ll just man up and finish the plate, microwaved food does not taste as good as freshly cooked counterpart by all means.

  12. Thanr that’s a good point about the size of the restaurant dishes, you never know what’s coming until they turn up. I have also found Thai women do like to order a lot of different dishes and it makes me laugh a little when all those dishes get served and the ladies express their shock at how much food is on the table.

    Thanks for your comment.

  13. Martyn, the Thais I know take food home. After everyone is finished, someone separates the food they want from what they don’t want, sometimes piling everything on one plate. They then instruct the waiter/waitress to prepare a doggy bag(s) to go. This is all done with the polite queries around the table of who wants what.

    One thing I’ve found is that with Thai food, variety is of importance. The more variety, the better. Not all Thais working in BKK have their own kitchen. If they are not eating with friends (where they can order more dishes) then they are eating one plate meals. So communal eating is a way to treat themselves to more variety.

    Another item of importance (I’m told) is the type of foods. One of my Thai friends explained to me that she would never order a dish that is quick and easy to make at home. Like farangs do (apparently). So eating out with friends is a way to enjoy the more difficult (and depending on the host) expensive dishes – and again, with the chance of taking leftovers home.

  14. Catherine I don’t know why but I would expect the folk of Bangkok to have a different mentality to that of for example the people of Isaan. I’m probably wrong but I’d expect the capital’s citizens to have a more western way of thinking towards food waste, that is the richer souls of Bangkok. I would guess they seek more value for money rather than the status side of things which Peter pointed out. By rich I’m not talking mega, just those who are on a half decent wage.

  15. Martyn,

    I know exactly what you mean about the number of dishes ordered when you go out to a restaurant with your Thai friends, but I have to say that I’ve rarely seen them leave any food uneaten. On the contrary, we sometimes find ourselves ordering even more dishes after the initial damage has been done. Not sure too where farang stand in the pecking order as I’ve never been asked to foot the bill when going out with Golf’s friends and I am certainly the eldest person at the table. We rarely waste anything at home either, although I have thankfully gotten Golf to adopt the habit of saving leftovers in the refrigerator rather than under one of those big plastic colander looking things 🙂

  16. Steve you and your friends have got the right approach to dining out in Thailand. Blitz the table’s contents and then order more if required. That would seem to be a more modern approach to night’s out rather than the traditional way of ordering way too much for those present.

    You’ve been lucky if you’ve thus far escaped without having to pay a restaurant bill.

  17. Thought-provoking post, Martyn, as you can see from the comments. When I eat out in Thailand it is usually with large numbers of Thais, in Bangkok or near Phana (nowhere to eat there, at night anyway) and too much is always ordered. But leftovers are always divvied up and taken home. But I think that is just tacked on to the idea you have about having too much on the table as a status thing and to avoid giving the impression that it wasn’t enough.
    The photo at the top could be an odd-one-out quiz. We know which dish was specially for you, even if you weren’t the only one to eat from it.

  18. Hi Martyn, I’m enjoying my stroll through your blog! I haven’t been to Thailand yet, but am planning to, and I love to read about the cultural differences. I can see how empty plates could be a sign of ‘too little food’ instead of ‘everyone loved the food’, but I’m relieved to hear that Thais do take all the extra food home. The frugalista in me couldn’t bear the thought of all that delicious food being thrown out 🙂
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  19. i was in bankok and pattaya, wasting food is something which is a considerable thing, thailand is rich in fruits and other food stuff but still we need to make sure we not wasting stuff and utilizing it to best possible level.

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