Doing it respectfully is not as tough as you might think.

waitress swapping dishes
Credit: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

We've all been there: We've ordered a perfect steak, seared on the outside, bright red on the inside—only to have a hunk of meat arrive that's more brown than pink. But we eat it anyway, because we don't want to be that picky person.

But after speaking to chefs, we now know sending back our food won't offend, if it's for the right reasons, that is. Here's how to do it the right way, including what to say.

When to send your food back

There are very few reasons you can't send a dish back to the kitchen. If you advised your server you have an allergy—to nuts or dairy, for example—but your dish came out sprinkled with cashews or covered in cheese, you should send your meal back— and have it remade, rather than have the allergen simply removed, say Rise & Shine Restaurant Group owner Johan Engman. Same goes if you're served a cold plate, or if your food is overcooked, whether that's a steak, as we mentioned above, or a plate of eggs that were ordered over-easy and came out way too hard, Engman says.

Another reason to send your plate back to the kitchen is if your meal is missing an ingredient. (Say, a sesame-crusted cod fillet looks suspiciously sesame-free.) Or, if you asked that the kitchen to hold back a certain ingredient—such as a burger ordered without lettuce and tomato comes topped with both—you can send it back, advises

Scott Simpson executive chef and co-owner of The Depot. "I would also advise you to return something if it was exceptionally off on seasoning or taste," he says, which you could determine by how it looks, smells, or by your very first bite. "Most chefs would agree that we prefer to be told right away if something is too salty or spicy for you to eat, but most guests wait until they've endured a meal they do not enjoy."

You should not send back you order if you're to blame for the meal's mistake. For example, if you modified a dish in a way you turned out not to like and to your dismay, the chef actually knew what he was doing with the original combination or you misread the menu item and felt surprised when you saw your chicken was sautéed with onions, and not scallions.

Same goes for if you've got the gift of gab and waited to long to bite into your risotto, says Engman. (Of course, a restaurant may take your plate back and reheat it, but that doesn't mean you should send it back, he says. So try to dig in when it's served.)

How to send your food back

You shouldn't be afraid to send the wrong meal back for the right reasons—but that doesn't mean you won't feel a little nervous flagging your waitress or waiter down.

So Engman's advice is to stick to the facts of your food case. "When the server comes to the table, simply say it flat out: 'I ordered my eggs over-easy, but these eggs are over-hard,' or 'I ordered my steak medium-rare, but it's well done,'" he says. If you do this, "the server's response should be a genuine apology and an assurance that he or she will rectify this immediately and alert the kitchen manager of the mistake."

If your dish came with a really big blunder—an allergen made it onto your plate, or you found a foreign object, such as a hair or a nail in your food—you should take it a step further and complain, says Simpson. "Ask to speak to the manager," he advises. Then, you should "explain [what happened] and that you wanted to bring it to his or her attention. This allows the manager to speak with the chef to find out what may have happened, as well as ensure a prompt service recovery to your table."

While you wait to tell your server about your meal mishap, you can nibble on your food—a little. There's no universal rule about how much you can eat before sending a meal back, Engman says, but if you eat more than a third of your food, you might raise a few eyebrows. "We would always take the dish back," he says. "But I'd say ... anything beyond two or three bites and you know [whether to stop eating]."