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.


Lessons from a Week of Independent Eating

These next three months are going to be my first experience living on my own and having complete autonomy over my food choices. There is no guardian cooking for me, no one else with food preferences to accommodate, no groceries bought by someone else, and no college dining plan encouraging me to buy my meals rather than cook them. I am abroad for the semester with my own apartment, which means my own kitchen, my own cooking, and my own grocery shopping.

smoked salmon hashWhile some people would find this kind of autonomy daunting, I was excited the moment I realized that I would be in full control of deciding what I ate. Finally, I could really dive into the 300+ recipes that I have bookmarked on my computer! Of course I’m going to go out to sample the local cuisine, but I also envisioned cooking glorious dishes for myself and learning to make things that I’ve been itching to try.

As you might have guessed from my use of the past tense, I have been slightly disillusioned. Having been in Berlin for just over a week, I have already come to realize how non-conducive to cooking my new schedule is. After all, my weekdays involve working until 5:30pm and then going to either the gym or to lessons. For gym nights, I cook in advance so I have leftovers ready immediately after my workout – but my lack of microwave makes reheating less convenient than I would like. Also, I am lacking a great many cooking supplies but am too stingy to buy new ones, since my time here is so brief.

Constrained culinary creativity aside, my new food autonomy presents me with an overwhelming amount of choice: where to buy groceries, what groceries to buy, when to bring food vs. eat out, how to plan my meals to use my groceries, etc. While planning is good for the sake of preventing waste and making healthy choices, I have been stressing myself out a little by neurotically planning how I eat. So, I’m sharing some advice for fellow self-determination newbies (and building on my previous post about my food-buying habits):berlin grocery

  • Don’t over-plan! Yes, use a grocery list when you shop to avoid impulse purchases and have an idea of how you’re going to use what you buy – but don’t let food become a source of stress. Leave one or two ‘uncertain’ days in your week’s schedule. After all, life happens, plans change, and you might be invited out to dinner on the night that you were planning to make lasagna. Allow yourself room for flexibility.
  • Assemble a pantry early on. Buy things like cereal, pasta, canned soup, and yogurt that are generally useful to have on-hand (and aren’t in your week’s plan).
  • Don’t let fresh produce become a burden. You don’t want to have to worry about using the fruits or vegetables before they go bad. If your schedule is still up in the air when you grocery shop, choose produce that keeps well or can be refrigerated, or just buy frozen or preserved goods. The same goes for other perishables like meat and dairy products.

I’m sure that I’ll learn many more lessons during my Berlin time, and I’ll be happy to share them. Having already seen a package of chicken livers in my grocery store, I might even finally try my hand at semi-nose-to-tail cooking. Being independent is all about adventure and self-discovery, right?


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.


Massive Menu Madness

Take a look at the appetizers available at your typical American casual restaurant chain, and you will probably find some variety of chicken, breads, cheesy baked dips, stuffed or fried vegetables, mozzarella sticks, quesadillas, nachos, egg rolls, and potstickers,. The first few items may sound ‘All-American,’ and even Tex-Mex food like nachos has been adapted enough to qualify as an American standard – but egg rolls? Although the United States is known as a melting pot of ethnic cultures, it strikes me as a little wrong to have heavily Italian-, Mexican-, and Asian-inspired dishes on the same menu. Rather than being impressed by the variety that the restaurant has to offer, I’m skeptical of the quality of each of these dishes. I would prefer to eat somewhere that specializes in making certain kinds of dishes really well over a place that makes a bunch of mediocre crowd-pleasers. Furthermore, large menus really generate waste.

Let’s start with restaurant management. The more expansive a menu is, the more ingredients are needed to make the wide variety of dishes. While most foods can fortunately be found in various cuisines – for instance, pretty much any vegetables used in stir fry can be roasted as a side dish or served in a salad – some specialty ingredients like bean sprouts have a limited range of use. Even if a restaurant takes this into account and makes an effort to only work with versatile ingredients or specialize in a certain cuisine, a huge menu means the kitchen needs to be stocked with a large quantity of fresh foods in order to be ready to prepare anything. In our freshness-paranoid society, that means that a lot of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and who knows what else gets tossed out at the end of the day to make room for a new ingredients shipment the next morning.


Then there’s us, the consumers confronted with a dauntingly long list of food offerings. Unless you have a specific craving or are a very picky eater, chances are that you will have trouble deciding what to order. In addition to being stressful, possibly to the point of causing so-called menu anxiety, the pressure to quickly settle on a meal encourages rash, irrational decision-making. For some people, the bad decision is foregoing their diets because the small salad section has been undermined by long lists of burgers, pastas, and/or other hearty entrees. In other cases, though, it means ordering multiple dishes so as to avoid choosing between two enticing options. Splitting or sampling is all well and good if you’re with at least one other person willing to share, but often it just results in several unfinished plates. In over 50% of cases, restaurant leftovers such as these are not taken home by the diner, which usually means they end up in the garbage. Why someone would allow a meal that they found so irresistible go to waste is a rant for another time.

As much as I love ordering something different every time I come to a restaurant, many of today’s menus are simply overwhelming. One consequence of being inundated with choices is wastefulness. By sticking to what they know instead of trying to satisfy every taste, restaurants save money on ingredients and prevent needless waste. The overall dining experience is also more pleasant for patrons when they don’t find themselves vacillating between five scrumptious-sounding options. Rather than worrying, “What if that other dish was better?” diners can are more likely to be satisfied by their orders, hopefully happy enough to finish them or take leftovers home.

If you find yourself in eating somewhere with a huge menu, take a moment to not look at it and think about what kind of food you’re really in the mood for. Find that section of the menu and try not to let your eyes wander. On the other hand, if you want to peruse everything, just keep in mind a) how much you want to eat, b) whether you can take leftovers home (and will have a chance to eat them), and c) whether you can come back some other time to try something else.

Make eating an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one!


Not so virgin: the fraud of the olive it on top of a lush green salad, prepare a bowl to dip warm slices of bread into, or sip a teaspoon on an empty stomach- just some of the uses for olive oil. 

This century old ingredient promises beauty and overall health.

Recent scientific studies also confirm the health benefits of olive oil, a main staple of the Mediterranean diet. 

Lucky for us (who live in developed countries), we can find this golden liquid packaged inside glass bottles and aerosol cans (but please, whatever you do, don’t ever buy olive oil in a spray can, you will regret it!) on supermarket aisles.

With so many wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle, the demand for continued production of olive oil is high, especially for the oils exported from Italy. Being naive believers in packaging and marketing, consumers happily buy up olive oil that says ‘Natural’ and ‘Made in Italy’. If you fall prey to these deceitful schemes, then watch out!

Recent studies showed that “70% of cheaper extra virgin olive oil sold is a fraud.” And labels that say ‘Extra Virgin’ and ‘Made in Italy’ are legal even if the product wasn’t produced in Italy. This means that 69% of olive oil sold in the USA is doctored.

Big brands, such as Filippo Berio and Bertolli, make customers believe that their product is made in pristine olive fields of Italy. However, most of the time, their olives hail from diverse corners of the world like Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and Spain. 

So, how can this be possible? Unfortunately, the FDA in USA and the EU don’t test olive oil due to high costs. Big brands, hungry for profit, utilize these loopholes to make loads of money without ever getting caught. It’s like taking part in trafficking illegal drugs but never being held responsible for the crime. 2010, UC Davis carried out a study of olive oil. Results showed that 69% of imported and 10% of California-based oils labeled ‘Extra Virgin’ failed International Olive Council (IOC) and USDA standards for extra virgin olive oil. Luckily a small percentage of products did pass the test and these brands should be applauded for selling quality goods. Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch, Kirkland Organic, Lucero and McEvoy Ranch Organic all sell real olive oil.

It’s unfortunate to see big companies finding loopholes to make money by advertising false products to their consumers. It’s also alarming to see government agencies failing to protect consumers from these frauds. This is why, more than ever, it’s important that we share our knowledge with each other. The power is in our hands. I hope this post has been helpful!

Happy eating!