Stop, Thief!

Dear Helena,

Is it acceptable to finish the food left on the plates of your fellow diners? Let’s assume we’re among friends.—Hungryman

Dear Hungryman,

Table scraps are for dogs or for the compost heap. It’s greedy to forage from other people’s plates. It’s unhygienic too. That gnawed pork chop you covet could be contaminated with their germs.

Thrusting your fork too close makes people feel uncomfortable. Their plate is part of their personal space. And when we eat at a table, there’s an unspoken understanding that no one will snatch anyone else’s food, wanted or not. Animals may fight for scraps, but humans don’t.

In any case, how can you be truly sure that leftover food is not going to be eaten? Maybe your companion is a slow eater. Or maybe he’s planning to ask for a doggie bag. If you ask him for his barely touched slice of pie, he might say yes just to be polite, and be forced to watch miserably as you devour it.

There is an exception to the rule against scavenging. It’s OK to pounce on someone’s leftovers if they are your lover or child. You probably have all their germs anyway, so no need to worry about their saliva. And your lover or child knows you love them, so they won’t find it threatening if you stick your fork in their direction.

Be sure to ask your loved one before digging in. And feel free to eat off their plate if you’re at home and it’s just the two of you (or the immediate family). But if other people are present, switch plates or have the other person put their leftovers on a bread plate. Fellow diners don’t want to watch you scarfing the last shrimp from someone else’s plate. It can be messy, and if you’re a couple, it’s disconcertingly intimate. What’s next—licking sauce off each other’s fingers? If you’re really that hungry, get a second helping, or a room.

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