How to Send Food Back Without Being a Jerk

There's a fine line between speaking up when something is wrong and being an entitled nightmare. 

Fries, hot dog, and burgers
Photo: Oscar Bolton Green

Picture this: You're at a restaurant, and the plate brought out by the staff is not what you ordered, or it includes ingredients you cannot eat. Thinking of pointing it out, your brain begins to skip through the food chain: If you decide to say something, will it embarrass or frustrate the waiter? Will the restaurant lose money? What happens to this food? Will it get thrown away? This arm of restaurant politesse—the precarious dance between guest and staff—doesn't have an explicit code of conduct. But there's a fine line between speaking up when something is wrong and being an entitled nightmare.

Speak Up for Yourself

For some, sending back food isn't just a matter of dissatisfaction—it's a necessity. "I have sent back food [that I couldn't eat] and hated myself for it. I have also ordered a second meal because I couldn't remember if I had actually mentioned my celiac," shares Coco K., a New Yorker with a severe allergy who often dines out. Over the years, she has learned how to be more vocal in speaking up—and has found that most restaurants are understanding when it comes to allergies.

Be Kind and Direct

"Trying to figure out when to advocate for yourself is not the easiest thing, and it's hard for guests to muster up the courage to say, 'This isn't what I ordered,'" shares 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef Trigg Brown. "But those of us in the industry appreciate forthrightness because we want to fix it." So be direct, and don't apologize for your ask, but do be aware of how you voice your request. For Brown, asking to send food back comes down to reading the room and making an effort to be a good human about it. "Open dialogue is a lot more productive than someone coming in with a loaded gun or just being cruel."

Consider the Bigger Picture

Dana Gunders, executive director of the U.S. food waste reduction and management nonprofit ReFED, thinks more people should question our obsession with perfection when it comes to our meals. "By nature, food is imperfect; the more we demand perfection in our food, the more food goes to waste," she says. Take a minute to examine what warrants your request in the first place. (If it's a life-threatening allergy, of course, there's no question.) "So before sending your dish back, remember that it takes an enormous amount of resources to get that food to the table. Don't eat something that's truly objectionable or unsafe, but if it's a minor issue, consider letting it go."

Remember Your Thank-Yous

If the kitchen sends you a new plate (especially one on the house), you're not off the hook; as our parents taught us, say please and thank you. "It's important to remember we're all human and we're doing the best we can," says Deborah Williamson, cofounder of James in Brooklyn. "Simply be kind and appreciative, and leave a good tip." Chef Lior Hillel of California-based restaurant Bacari takes it a step further and encourages guests to spread the word. "Word of mouth can go a long way," he says. "Share your experience with friends and those closest to [you]."

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