Whether or Not to Finish Your Plate

Last slice of pizza on serving tray
Last slice of pizza on serving tray | Photo by Semenovp, Depositphotos

Not sure whether you should finish everything on your plate or leave a little to not insult your host? It is a question that runs through my mind all the time. In some countries a clean plate shows that you are appreciative and not wasteful. In others, an empty plate dishonors your host because it implies that they didn’t make enough food to eat.

Here are my running notes, country-by-country, on dining etiquette and whether or not to leave a morsel on your plate. My default is to follow the host’s lead. Please let me know if you have any additional tips or any additional nuances to share. Happy dining!

Dining Etiquette by How Much Food to Leave

Finish Everything

EUROPE

  • • France: Finish everything and don’t ask for seconds.
  • • Germany: Finish everything on your plate so you don’t imply that there was something wrong with the food.
  • • Spain: Finish everything on your plate so you are not wasteful.  Don’t accept a second serving if you can’t finish it.
  • • Switzerland: Sample everything offered and finish everything on your plate.

ASIA

  • • India: Finish everything to have respect for served food.  Speaking of respect, there is no need to say thank you for common gestures (e.g. passing food).  Thank you’s are reserved for formal relations.  When you are eating from communal dishes, eat with your right hand (never your left which is considered unclean), use the flatbread to scoop (e.g. naan or chapati), and eat from only your portion of the serving dish.  It is rude if you eat too fast.  If you eat too slow it implies you don’t like the food.  When you are done eating, complement the host.  Don’t stand up until the host or the eldest person is done eating.
  • • Japan: Finish everything so you don’t have mottainai (regret for wasting).  It is okay to slurp noodles to show you are enjoying your meal; it also cools notoriously scalding hot soup faster and helps to enhance its flavor with the combination of broth and aeration.
  • • South Korea: Finish everything so you are not wasteful; but only do so after the eldest has finished their meal.  Also, don’t start eating until the eldest has started to eat in the first place.  It is all about respecting your elders.
  • • Vietnam: Finish everything on your plate so you are not wasteful.

Leave a Little

NORTH AMERICA

  • • Mexico: Follow your host’s lead.  Sit after you are invited to sit or they sit, eat after they have started, keep your hands visible above the table, and leave a little food on your plate when you have finished eating.  When you are done place your fork and knife across your plate, handles to the right and fork tines down.

EUROPE

  • • Portugal: Leave a little food on your plate so you indicate that you were served enough to be satisfied.

ASIA

  • • China: Always leave a little food on serving plates so you don’t imply that there wasn’t enough food, it wasn’t filling, and you are still hungry.  It is very insulting if you finish everything and it dishonors your host.  When it comes to whole fish, don’t flip it over because it signifies turning your back or a boat capsizing.
  • • Singapore: Leave a little food on your plate so you don’t imply you are still hungry.
  • • Thailand: Leave a little food on the serving plates BUT finish all your rice on your own plate so you are not wasteful.

Do Not Leave a Lot

NORTH AMERICA

  • • USA: It matters more that you don’t leave too much food piled up.  In general only get what you can eat, don’t start eating until everyone else has been served, try everything on your plate, eat until you are full, and don’t worry about whether or not to leave a mouthful leftover. Empty is good. A little leftover is fine. Just don’t leave a lot of food on your plate; your host will wonder if there was something wrong with it or if you didn’t like it at all.  If there is only one piece of food on a serving plate that you would like, it is polite to first offer it to others; if there are no takers, it is all yours.

It Varies

EUROPE

  • • Italy: Varies region to region and family to family on whether to finish everything or leave a little less than a mouthful. In general for private settings, start off with a small amount so you allow room for the host to offer you seconds. Then eat as much as you can and leave only a tiny morsel of food on your plate. If anyone questions even that amount, it is usually enough to say you ate too much or you are leaving room for dessert.
  • • United Kingdom: Follow your host’s lead. Sit after you are invited to sit or they sit, eat after they have started, stop when they stop even if you are not done.  Leave a little morsel of food on your plate if the situation allows and you are finished eating.

Dining Etiquette by Country

North America

USA (Do not leave a lot):

It matters more that you don’t leave too much food piled up.  In general only get what you can eat, don’t start eating until everyone else has been served, try everything on your plate, eat until you are full, and don’t worry about whether or not to leave a mouthful leftover. Empty is good. A little leftover is fine. Just don’t leave a lot of food on your plate; your host will wonder if there was something wrong with it or if you didn’t like it at all.  If there is only one piece of food on a serving plate that you would like, it is polite to first offer it to others; if there are no takers, it is all yours.

Mexico (Leave a little):

Follow your host’s lead.  Sit after you are invited to sit or they sit, eat after they have started, keep your hands visible above the table, and leave a little food on your plate when you have finished eating.  When you are done place your fork and knife across your plate, handles to the right and fork tines down.

Europe

France (Finish everything):

Finish everything and don’t ask for seconds.

Germany (Finish everything):

Finish everything on your plate so you don’t imply that there was something wrong with the food.

Italy (Varies by region):

Varies region to region and family to family on whether to finish everything or leave a little less than a mouthful. In general for private settings, start off with a small amount so you allow room for the host to offer you seconds. Then eat as much as you can and leave only a tiny morsel of food on your plate. If anyone questions even that amount, it is usually enough to say you ate too much or you are leaving room for dessert.

Portugal (Leave a little):

Leave a little food on your plate so you indicate that you were served enough to be satisfied.

Spain (Finish everything):

Finish everything on your plate so you are not wasteful.

Switzerland (Finish everything):

Sample everything offered and finish everything on your plate.

United Kingdom (Leave a little):

Follow your host’s lead. Sit after you are invited to sit or they sit, eat after they have started, stop when they stop even if you are not done.  Leave a little morsel of food on your plate if the situation allows and you are finished eating.

Asia

China (Leave a little):

Always leave a little food on serving plates so you don’t imply that there wasn’t enough food, it wasn’t filling, and you are still hungry.  It is very insulting if you finish everything and it dishonors your host.  When it comes to whole fish, don’t flip it over because it signifies turning your back or a boat capsizing.

India (Finish everything):

Finish everything to have respect for served food.  Speaking of respect, there is no need to say thank you for common gestures (e.g. passing food).  Thank you’s are reserved for formal relations.  When you are eating from communal dishes, eat with your right hand (never your left which is considered unclean), use the flatbread to scoop (e.g. naan or chapati), and eat from only your portion of the serving dish.  It is rude if you eat too fast.  If you eat too slow it implies you don’t like the food.  When you are done eating, complement the host.  Don’t stand up until the host or the eldest person is done eating.

Japan (Finish everything):

Finish everything so you don’t have mottainai (regret for wasting).  It is okay to slurp noodles to show you are enjoying your meal; it also cools notoriously scalding hot soup faster and helps to enhance its flavor with the combination of broth and aeration.

Singapore (Leave a little):

Leave a little food on your plate so you don’t imply you are still hungry.

South Korea (Finish everything):

Finish everything so you are not wasteful; but only do so after the eldest has finished their meal.  Also, don’t start eating until the eldest has started to eat in the first place.  It is all about respecting your elders.

Thailand (Leave a little but finish all your rice):

Leave a little food on the serving plates BUT finish all your rice on your own plate so you are not wasteful.

Vietnam (Finish everything):

Finish everything on your plate so you are not wasteful.

Last updated June 2, 2023 by Jacyln