Ethical Frugality Week: Serving Leftovers

Throughout this week, I’m posting a series of articles on the ethics of frugality. How far can you take things without crossing an ethical line or diving into seriously socially unacceptable waters? I’ll be recounting some of my own stories – and some stories from readers – along the way.

“Jim” writes in:

A married couple I’m friends with invited me over to dinner recently. When I arrived, they were rushing around trying to throw a meal together. The main course turned out to be leftover chicken breasts. Yes, leftover. They had been grilled a day or two before and they had merely tossed on some additional spices and warmed them in the oven. I was kind of disgusted by this. I understand that this was an inexpensive route for them to go for dinner, but I was a dinner guest at their home!

When you have guests over, how far does frugality go before it crosses a tactful line? As always, there are two sides to the story…

The price is right. Someone is providing a free meal to you. It’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth. The meal was obviously cooked and was edible, so a good guest wouldn’t question the source of it (assuming there are no allergy issues or the like). The hosts obviously have some issues going on in their lives – perhaps financial or otherwise – and the best thing you can do as a friend is support them. In fact, instead of being outraged, you might take this meal as a sign that your friends need some help.

The hosts aren’t treating their guests well. If your hosts wanted to merely see you for a while, they did not have to invite you over for a meal. Inviting a guest over for a meal means that you’ll attempt to put something appetizing and reasonably fresh on the table, not your leftovers. If you intend to merely foist leftovers on a friend, make it clear – it can be fine if it’s a close friend and there’s some advance warning (“Hey, Jim, we have a ton of leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner. Want to come over and help us clean them up?”). Without that, though, it’s fairly rude to toss your uneaten scraps in front of a guest in your home.

My perspective is that it depends on the friendship. I would have no problem serving my closest friends some well-prepared leftovers, nor would they feel self-conscious serving me the same. Anything beyond my closest friends, however, would never get such treatment in my home.

What’s the difference? I have such a long, established relationship with my closest friends that there’s no longer any need to impress in order to further build a friendship. These people have been my friends for the majority of my life at this point (or nearly that long). They know who I am and they know I care deeply about them. They also know that they’re an intimate part of my life, intimate enough that I would feel comfortable serving them some leftovers in a pinch.

If a friendship weren’t nearly as established, I would never serve leftovers as a dish to my guests. However, I would use leftovers as an ingredient in a dish that I would serve to anyone. If I make a big pot of chicken chili, for example, quite often the chicken itself is a leftover and the liquid in the soup is chicken stock, prepared from the bones of a roasted chicken.

One of my mantras is “stop caring what other people think.” That mantra ends at my doorstep when I invite people inside. When they’re here, I do care what they think because I value them enough individually to invite them into my home and share part of my life with them. Respect your guests – and they’ll respect you in return.

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