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 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?”
If 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.