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.


Reinventing the Doggy Bag

SWELL_DISHES_LIKE_THESE_ARE_TOO_GOOD_TO_WASTE_-_NARA_-_515514Surely you’ve heard of a ‘doggie bag’. It gained popularity in the 1970‘s in USA, when fast food and take out became staples of American culture. The origins of this term, however, vary.

Some say it stems from the East Anglian word “docky” that means lunch. Others think it is a literal translation of the idea that such food was usually taken home to feed pets. Whichever explanation you choose, one thing you can usually expect with the term is lots of “orts” – small scarps of food left after a meal. 

In countries like USA and Great Britain, taking uneaten food to go is becoming common practice. Yet, in places like France and Italy, where cuisine has a traditional standard of certain perfection, taking leftovers is almost shameful. 

Nonetheless, some traditions become outdated and new trends do catch on. Usually it’s thanks to brave individuals that stick to their beliefs even in new surroundings. For instance, Michelle Obama made sure to take her uneaten food to go while dining at the Maccheroni restaurant in Italy during the G8 summit. 

Interestingly, some restaurants are reinventing the entire leftover process to make it more convenient for customers. One such trend is use of numbers that are given to customers and used to pick up their remnants on the way out. It’s similar to a coat check idea and gives customers the freedom to keep their table space clear for other food and hand room.

tgtwSadly, even with campaigns such as Too Good To Waste that convince clients to overcome shyness and break cultural stereotypes of leftovers, food isn’t always taken home. 

And when it is, some of it gets forgotten in the fridge and thrown away days later.

One solution for this would be to share a meal with a friend, leaving plenty of room and available calories for dessert. Another option would be to specifically look for individuals that are in need on the way home and hand the delicious morsels to them. Either way, taking food home gets us one step closer to reducing food waste and that’s a good thing. 

Are you guilty of leaving food on your restaurant plates? If so, do you take it home with you? Whether you do or not, share your experiences here and together we can come up with more innovative solutions. After all, sharing is caring! 

Thanks for reading and stopping by!


Solutions to Restaurant Plate Waste

Here are some facts that you probably didn’t know:

1. Consumers leave an average of 17 percent of their meals uneaten on a plate. 
2. 55-59% of these leftovers are not taken home from the restaurant. 
3. The foods we eat in US travel an estimated 1,500 miles before they hit the table. is something to keep in mind when eating out. Especially during events, such as DC’s Restaurant Week, when locals could try special cuisine at a reduced prices, discover new dishes and eating spots.

A great article in the Washington Post suggests some solutions. From rewarding people for finishing all their food, to charging them for leftovers, the options are endless. And that’s exactly what we need to remind consumers! We need to remind them that they can choose to share their meal with a friend, take the leftovers home or give it to someone in need.

One innovative idea worth highlighting is called Halfsies! A consumer can pay full price and eat just half of their entree, the money and ingredients saved with a smaller portion is donated to a non-profit. After all, we are lucky to afford eating out, but 1 in 7 adults in the USA feel hunger on a daily basis. So let’s not forget these individuals as we go out to lunch or grab dinner with friends. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to share them with us! Some of the best and innovative ideas come from customers like yourself!