the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Problem with the Tray at McDonald’s

One childhood ritual of mine that continues to this day is my method of eating French fries at McDonald’s. I spill the fries onto the tray, rip open two of those jagged-edged ketchup packets (one is never enough) and squirt the tomato delicacy into the empty zone situated between the fries and the edge of the tray. As most of you probably know, when I say “the tray” I don’t mean that I eat directly off of the dirty, plastic, dark-brown McDonald’s tray. No, I throw the fries on the paper “placemat” that is slid on top of the tray by the McDonald’s employee before the arrival of the food. These placemats tend to be colorful advertisements on the front, extolling the fun and community-mindedness of Ronald McDonald, while the back contains the nutritional information, hidden from the customer’s view.

My French fry eating method has one major drawback. Since there are no waiters or busboys at McDonald’s, the customer is expected to do his civic duty and bus his own tray. Several garbage receptacles are provided with swinging doors, so a customer could open one of them by pushing it inward with his tray, avoiding hand contact, and then with a mere shake of the wrist, empty the tray into the darkness of the receptacle. The cheerful customer would then place his tray on top of one of the gray, fake-linoleum receptacles, adding it to a neatly arranged pile of identical trays, ready to be cleaned and reused.

While I am sure this clean-up system works efficiently at the McDonald’s Engineering Lab at Hamburger University, my ritual of spilling out the fries and ketchup onto the paper placemat exposes a major glitch. My placemat always sticks to the tray itself, and no amount of shaking, or banging the tray against the side of the receptacle can ever release it from its greasy prison.

This unfortunate problem requires me to make some hard decision when I visit McDonald’s. Should I stick my hand into the receptacle and manually pull the paper placemat off the tray, potentially splashing ketchup all over my hand, arm, or even my shirt? Or should I just pass the problem off to others, by tossing the tray, with the sticky, stained, paper placemat, right on the remaining pile of trays.

Over the years, many of my friends, having the same difficult with the receptacles (after copying my technique of eating French Fries) chose the second route of action, rationalizing it by insisting that they, “cleaned it off as best as they could.” I could never sink that low. My parents raised me to do better.

But recently, as in many stories, a change in direction came from an unlikely source, forever changing my relationship with the garbage receptacles at McDonald’s. Last week, after my yearly checkup, my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and sugar levels, and that I should probably stop eating at McDonald’s. A mere day later, another event occurred, adding more fuel to the drama. The Dominican Diner down the block closed down, seized by the State of New York for the non-payment of taxes. The closure of the diner left McDonald’s as the only place within ten block to grab a quick and inexpensive cup of coffee.

McDonald’s or not? That is the question. My decision was — I compromised. This week, I visited McDonald’s four times, but only to order a cup of coffee – no food. No breakfast burrito. No hamburger. No chicken wrap. Not even French fries. I noticed that because I only ordered coffee, the cashier skipped the tray, and just handed me the coffee, right into my open hand – even if I intended to drink it at the restaurant.

This not only enhanced my health, but revolutionized my handling of the clean-up. After drinking the coffee, I now simply push open the garbage receptacle with the paper cup, and toss it away. No more fighting with the unruly paper placemat grabbing hold on to the tray for dear life. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even start to bring my own cup down to McDonald’s and avoid using the garbage receptacle at all.

Truth quotient: 100%. This is the type of story you get when the truth quotient is 100%.


  1. Loukia

    I just read the first few lines (will go back to read the rest) and I had to say that’s so wrong! Next time place your fries oh a napkin before spilling them on to the tray and you actually put ketchup on the tray itself? Those trays never get washed!

  2. Loukia

    Oops okay. Read the rest. Am relieved to know you don’t place ketchup on the tray. But maybe still use a napkin. Or, if you’re getting a burger (here is what I do) place the ketchup on the burger wrapper, or on the lid side of a Big Mac container.
    And congrats on being able to go to McDonald’s and only order a coffee!

  3. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    100 percent truth quotient doesn’t need to be ALL about the tray. 100 percent truth quotient could be about the anxiety related to health issues and the way it relates to the clean tray. Let’s not pretend “the truth makes boring posts.”

    And in other news, think of all the money you’re saying buying just a cup of coffee!!!

  4. unmitigated me

    Dear Neil,

    Please lie to us again.


    • Neil

      Love this comment.

  5. Gloriana Beausoleil

    There’s a Tom Waits song for this:

  6. Sarah Piazza

    That last sentence alone made this post totally worth reading.

  7. Christie

    You sit and drink coffee in McDonald’s? Trying to picture doing that.

    • Neil

      Actually good place because they leave you alone for an hour and free wifi. Starbucks are way too crowded in the city. They want you in and out.

  8. magpie

    You know what? You take the little packet, you tear the corner off, and you dip the fries in the hole. Of course, that takes two hands, but – NO DIRTY TRAY!

    • Neil

      No one does that.

  9. Mod Mom Beyond IndieDom

    Now I want McD’s french fries. But I’m trying to lose some weight, so I’m swearing off french fries. So far, there’s just been a lot of swearing. Fries are my vice. Sunday I was at a little Japanese grocery in the village that has the best fries served with wasabi mayo. And I had none. Sadness. When I do McD’s fries, I get those little paper condiment cups and I fill ’em with ranch, ketchup, bbq sauce and honey mustard. Then I have a little dipping smorgasbord. Oh- and in receptacle news…they are starting to remove the swinging doors so you can chuck your garbage without fear of coming into contact with sludge. What took ’em so long?

  10. RossJ

    The issue originally reported is resolved if you go to McDonald’s after 7pm. It doesn’t matter what you buy, you won’t get a food tray. The food is either bagged or handed directly to you. It’s pretty bad when things get to this point.

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