How Four Questions Can Prevent Restaurant Plate Waste

Let’s start with some numbers: according to a 2013 study by Business for Social Responsibility, at least 84% of restaurant-generated food and drink waste in the USA gets sent to landfills (a measly 1.4% was donated). That is 15.7% of the American food industry’s organic waste. In the UK, WRAP estimates that 22% of the state’s food waste is generated by restaurants, 34% of which is from customer plates. As for China, annual restaurant food waste is equivalent to 10% of national crop production.

Trying to discuss all of the ways that restaurants can cut down their food waste, especially keeping it out of landfills, would look more like a dissertation than a blog post. However, reflecting on my ample experience of eating in restaurants, I have come up with some introductory suggestions for preventing plate waste. As a first step in waste reduction, restaurants should make it their policy to have their servers ask diners these four simple questions:

“Would you like some complimentary bread to accompany your meal?”

restaurant breadRestaurant hygiene regulations state that once food has been served, it can’t be reused. In restaurants that automatically provide diners with free bread (or chips or whatever else), that means the leftovers have to be thrown away. Waiters should ask diners whether they would like bread rather than immediately placing the basket on the table. This question forces the patrons to think, “Do I really want bread? Am I going to eat it all?” Even if the diners opt for the free food, they might specify, “Yes, but only a few slices.” Ideally, not only will there be no wasted bread, but the patrons who save room by skipping bread will be more likely to finish their main course.

Moreover, having to ask for bread will discourage overeating. Many people eat free restaurant bread just because it’s there, but the request acts as a ‘hurdle’ that the diner would have to cross to get that temptation. In a world of more than 1.9 billion overweight adults and 42 million overweight children (source: WHO), every effort to combat unhealthy eating habits is crucial.

“Some more water?”

While most drink refills cost money, many restaurants in the US provide free water*. Some even go so far as to have servers circulate with pitchers and refill patrons’ glasses at no request. I always try to stop servers from refilling my almost-empty glass, and on one occasion, the server worriedly asked me, “Are you sure? I’m supposed to…” The employee seemed scared that he would get in trouble if the manager saw that my glass wasn’t filled to the brim. Instead, diners should be offered a refill so that they have a clear chance to say no.

*expect a future post about varying free water laws across the world

“With everything?” or “Any substitutions?”

Many people are embarrassed to be judged as picky eaters, so they don’t specify their orders. That means that a diner might ask for a Greek salad and leave a pile of sun-dried tomatoes on the plate when (s)he could have easily said, “A Greek salad, but without the sun-dried tomatoes, please.” By inviting the patron to make specifications, however, a waiter offers a judgment-free zone. The diner feels like modifications to the menu are expected rather than inconvenient, and ultimately there is no sad pile of unwanted food scraps on the plate.

“Would you like to box anything?”

restaurant takeoutIf a restaurant were to adopt only one of my suggestions, this one would be the best. ‘Doggy-bagging’ food is a service that not all diners are aware of or that, again, they might feel embarrassed for requesting. Fact is, even the leftover bread mentioned in the first tip can be wrapped up! Sadly, there is no guarantee that the food will get eaten once it’s taken home, since humans can be quite forgetful; but at least it’s a start. The implied encouragement to take food home might offend some people as being ‘judgmental,’ but, frankly, I think that anyone who consciously decides to waste food deserves to be judged.

As this list demonstrates, one of the keys to combatting food waste is acknowledgment and communication of preferences. Servers just assume that patrons want free bread or refills because they haven’t been told otherwise. Restaurants thus perpetuate a culture of wastefulness that relies on the abundance of cheap food and water to please customers rather than just asking them what they really want. Diners have a responsibility as well, though, to consciously make efforts to prevent waste. They- we need to recognize food as valuable, not disposable – contrary to how the spontaneous gratification at restaurants makes it seem.

Food is meant to be eaten, not left on a plate and then thrown in the garbage.


How Do I Fight Food Waste?

“So, what do you do to fight food waste? Give very concrete examples.”

Surprisingly enough, I have only been asked this question once. Most of my conversations about food waste involve me giving examples of wasteful practices in the food industry and how households generate waste due to obliviousness, pointing out the environmental and economic senselessness of it all. The listener usually nods and agrees in a “yeah that’s really bad (…but that’s just the way things are)” kind of way. As happy as I am to have made someone else aware of the issue, I often get the feeling that the other person has little faith in my cause to reduce waste.

However, talking with my study abroad program director gave the discussion a new spin. I talk big about the importance of combatting food waste, but what do I actually do? Am I just an armchair activist? The question wasn’t meant as a challenge – in fact, I think he was simply curious to learn what the average consumer, like him, could do. Nonetheless, it forced me to do some reflecting.

  • I’m mindful of what is already in my pantry and fridge. That means two things: 1) waiting until something is running low or has run out before buying another, and 2) using what I have before it goes bad. It’s good to have a stock of canned soups, dry goods like pasta, and frozen items, but anything that can rot, grow mold, become rancid, and/or go stale needs to be eaten. For instance, if I have bread on the counter, I’ll probably have toast for breakfast rather than a bowl of cereal. Or, if one bag of tortilla chips is open, I won’t even open a bag of pita chips until it’s finished.
  • ProduceI buy fresh produce in limited quantities every couple of days and with a game plan. Leafy greens can be used as a side-salad in any meal, but, for other fruits and vegetables, I usually have a few dishes in mind to use them up soon.
  • I take advantage of my freezer. I freeze almost all of my raw meat as soon as I buy it, leftover ingredients or sauces (especially pesto!) to save for later, and most bread, by the half-loaf, to prevent mold.
  • I trust my senses more than expiration dates. Dates can serve as good guidelines for how soon something should be eaten or frozen, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all.
  • I love leftovers. Whether from my own cooking, friends’ dinner parties, or restaurants, I am always happy to re-eat something the next day. leftover riceIt’s also fun to jazz leftovers up to create a new dish!
  • I only order things that will be eaten. There are not many things that I do not eat, but if I want a salad that comes with, say, orange slices, I will kindly specify, “No oranges, please,” when ordering. Alternatively, if I’m eating with company, I’ll ask whether someone would like to have my oranges. Also, when I see bread on other people’s tables, I’ll immediately ask the waiter not to serve me bread.
  • I happily buy misshapen, blemished, or otherwise visually-unappealing food so that it doesn’t go unsold for shallow aesthetic reasons. I haven’t had the pleasure of being to an ugly food store yet, though.

If these ‘efforts’ seem simple, it’s because they are. Consumers could easily prevent thousands of tons of waste if they just put their minds to it. To me, most of these habits come so naturally that I don’t consider them noteworthy. Still, considering our wasteful culture, I’m proud of the little things I do.

You don’t have to be freegan to take a stand against waste.


Three Tips for Buying Local on a Budget

When it comes to buying produce, I try to get as much as possible from farmer’s markets or local grocers rather than supermarkets. Not only do smaller growers tend to raise their crops more organically (i.e. with fewer pesticides or hormones) than massive corporations, but you also get the comfort of knowing that the food hasn’t had to travel alci seasonalthousands and thousands of miles to get to your table. That saves hundreds of gallons of fuel that would have otherwise been spent cooling and transporting the food across the country, much less the world. Not to mention that the local food is much tastier because it’s fresh.

The one critique I keep hearing when it comes to locally-sourced food is price. When I encourage my friends to shop at our city’s farmer’s market, they typically say something like, “I love the farmer’s market, but it’s so expensive! How can you afford to go there every week?” Without going into the economics of it, I’ll admit that local food tends to be less cheap because small producers don’t have the kinds of business models that allow big manufacturers to keep prices low. When grocery stores sell a pint of blueberries for $2.99, many people feel that the positives of buying local still don’t justify spending $5 for the same amount. However, there are three simple tricks you can use to buy locally and economically.

1. Browse before you buy

Since all the vendors are growing their produce in the same climate and season, most of them offer the same variety of fruits and vegetables. For the shopper, that translates into multiple price options. Just last week, I saw potatoes being sold at $3/lb., $3/pint, $4/quart, and $5/quart. Before making a single purchase, walk the entire market, make price comparisons, and then buy accordingly.

2. Remember why you’re there

It’s incredibly easy to get enticed by things like fresh breads, pastries, and nut butters, especially when samples are available, but you must resist! Try to concentrate on buying produce and whatever else you planned to buy, because treats can cost a pretty penny. The two, age-old pieces of advice ring just as true at local markets: don’t shop hungry and bring a list.

3. Try something new

market vegetablesThe farmer’s market is a great place to discover new varieties of food. This slightly contradicts my advice of sticking to a shopping list, but if you see an appealing piece of fruit or vegetable for a low price – cheaper than whatever you had planned to buy – you should go for it. Buying food that you might not yet know how to cook is a great way to expand your culinary repertoire.

I realize not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a well-publicized farmer’s market, but look around online – or just walk around your town – and you might find some good local options. Being eco-friendly doesn’t have to be hard on your wallet.


Crazy Food Facts how much food we consume throughout the day and our entire life span, we have become quite uninterested with where it comes from. And despite access to unlimited online information, we know very little about our food sources.

In fact, it seems the only thing that we look at in food is its appearance. Considering our global trend to change appearances of everything and anything, this is the least helpful source of information. So, while we are attracted to perfect looking things, in today’s world, perfect is probably filled with lots of imperfections. And that beautiful green apple you’re about to sink your teeth into might be GMO and laced with chemicals.

To help unveil the curtain big food corporations have placed in front of our eyes, BuzzFeed prepared a nice little article to help us see what’s really happening behind closed doors of supermarkets. Are you ready to take a look? If so, click here. If you are shocked by what you see, share it with your friends. They need to know these facts.

Careful eating!