How to avoid waste in restaurants

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day! The universal day of ‘buy me an £80 meal to prove your affection for me’! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a romantic at heart but I like my romance more old school i.e. random gestures of affection, making dinner for me when I’ve had a long day at work etc. BUT I’m a foodie and we take our excuses to dine out wherever they may come! So yes, we will be having a super fancy Italian dinner this Thursday which I’m already excited for!

But how can we be conscious of our food waste levels when it comes to restaurants? And why should we? Well firstly, because restaurants in the UK are responsible for 1 million tonnes of food waste each year. According to WRAP this amasses to the equivalent of 1.3 billion meals being waste annually, 75% of which is avoidable. Part of this is due to things beyond our control as consumers and we’ll come to that for any of your restaurateurs out there in a minute.

So what’s the first thing we can do as consumers to minimise waste from our dining out? Be mindful of ‘All you can eat’ restaurants. Buffets and all you can eat’s are massive contributors to waste as a result of over-enthusiastic consumers piling their plates high, as well as restaurants over-preparing large amounts of food. You can mind you waste here by making multiple small plates instead of attempting to try everything in one sitting. If you feel like you can’t eat enough to make it value for money, maybe stick to A La Carte dining. Plus, come on guys, if we wanted to see you throw down with 40lbs of food before nearly vomiting and passing out, we could have done that at home for a quarter of the cost!

That is not to say restaurants which serve A La Carte are innocent in all of this. A 2010 study showed that on average we leave 17% of our food on our plates in restaurants. Think about how many people are served each day in a restaurant. How much does that add up to? A lot of the time it can feel like we don’t really have any control over this though. It’s easy to write it off and think that you didn’t set the portion or ‘I don’t go out that often, I want to treat myself’ and that’s totally fair. But there are ways we can manage it.

For starters (see what I did there?😂), be conscious of yourself and appetite. I know that I, as my Dad puts it, ‘eat like a sparrow’ so if we’re going fancy I’ll always check out the menu and see what’s jumping out at me more – the starters OR the desserts. I know, however devastating it is, I can’t manage both so I’ll pick whichever menu offers me something I really like the sound off. So far, there haven’t been many times when I haven’t been able to pick but when I really, REALLY can’t and I complain for long enough about it SOMETIMES Boyfriend will give in and agree to share a dessert with me so I can have a starter, main and try a little dessert.

The main course – This is where a lot of us struggle and to be honest, I think I lot of waste here is caused by ridiculous cultural norms that you and I are going to aim to break. We have a tendency to think ‘If I’m paying for this I want the most of it’, which is part of the reason restaurant portions have grown so much in size. But guys, we’re paying for it one way or another. So why not ask for a smaller portion if you know you normally don’t finish a ‘normal’ one. There is no difference in ‘value’ to doing this or having the normal portion and leaving the extra on the plate. Plus, if your other half/friend/parent were to take the total amount you eat at a restaurant and plate it up as a meal at home you’d most likely take one look at it and laugh as a ridiculous amount to eat. Sometimes I look at the portion sizes of starters and think ‘That’s how much I’d eat as a main course at home’.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask for things to be removed. Interestingly, the most wasted foods on restaurant plates are potatoes and starchy foods because we don’t see them as ‘the expensive part’. Although this study doesn’t include garnishes such as small salads I would expect this applies to these too. But just because they’re not costing us that much doesn’t mean they’re not costing the planet. So if you know you don’t ever eat the garnish, ask for your plate without it. If you know mashed potato fills you up, ask for a smaller portion of it. There’s this bizarre idea that this will really irritate waiters and, if you get a really rubbish one it may! But I was a waitress for most of my late teens and I loved chatting with my customers and learning from them, so take the time and explain that you’ve joined the food waste fight and why it’s important to you.

Finally, let’s end the fear of the doggy bag. Since I’ve become comfortable asking to take things home with me it’s made dining out a more comfortable experience for me because I no longer feel I have to stuff myself until I feel sick to try and avoid wasting what’s on my plate. Instead, I eat until I’m comfortably full, or sometimes a little short of that (so I can have dessert!), and ask to take the rest home. Extra win as it means I don’t have to worry about getting my lunch sorted before work the next day! A lot of people feel this is only something you can do with ‘complete’ meals such as pasta or pizza, ones where you don’t have to do anything to it to make it in to another meal. But I’ve had it before where I couldn’t finish my steak so I’ve taken it home and turned it in to a steak sandwich for lunch the next day.

I’m going to be asking you guys about doggy bags this week as the psychology and culture behind not asking for them really interests me. I was in Italy last August staying with a friend and her family and I remember going to ask the waiter if we could take some of the food home with us and my friend gently shook her head and explained to me that that’s not done in Italy. I was amazed but of course didn’t want to embarrass or offend anyone so stopped my request. So I’m going to be putting it to you, dear readers, to educate me on why and where this is the case. Keep an eye on The Food Waste Doctors Facebook page for the related post.

So what about dessert – Particularly on Valentine’s day, is there anything more romantic then sharing a dessert?…In my case yes. I was not kidding about the amount of begging I have to do to get boyfriend to share with me! But if you’re in the super sweet, not slapping your girlfriends hand away with a spoon, stage of your relationship make the most of it and get one super yummy dessert and two spoons, less waste, more intimacy! However, if you too deal with a boyfriend who doesn’t know how deadly it is to deprive a girl of her chocolate then the only advice I can give you ladies is to let it go. Realistically, it’s probably going to be a yummy dessert but it’s not worth ordering it to yourself, having two bites and then throwing the rest away. If nothing else, it’s such a waste of money! Instead, earmark the restaurant and come back with a girlfriend on girl’s night out – girlfriends never have a problem sharing desserts, another reason we are the fairer sex, Gents! Again, this is something I want to hear from you guys on. Who wastes more in restaurants, ladies or gents?

Finally, for the restaurateurs, why should you care about waste? Well a 2011 study claims that you can reduce the amount of food you have to purchase by 7% by utilising proactive food waste reduction strategies. This study found that the restaurants with an average food procurement level (within the study) could save up to $50,000 a year this way. So what’s causing waste in your restaurants which you can improve on? Apparently, allowing your chefs a little more freedom and encouraging them to come up with dishes from extra food can help, call it a special and you can charge double for it! Stop giving out bread baskets to everyone, make it clear that they are available, free of charge still, but placing them on everyone’s table means a lot of it is thrown away. Additionally, provide smaller portions and offer to top them up. Finally, stock management can go a long way towards reducing waste e.g. checking produce as they arrive and putting the riper fruits and veg at the front to be used first. It can seem timely but if it becomes a practice your staff members are trained and efficient in, there’s a good chance it will save you more money than it will cost through reducing wasted produce that you’ve paid for but will never sell. If this is something you want to learn more about feel free to email me.

References:

Baldwin, C., Wilberforce, N., & Kapur, A. (2011). Restaurant and food service life cycle assessment and development of a sustainability standard. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 16(1), 40-49.

Bloom, J. (2010). American wasteland: How America throws away nearly half of its food (and what we can do about it). Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Charlebois, S., Creedy, A., & von Massow, M. (2015). “Back of house”–focused study on food waste in fine dining: the case of Delish restaurants. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 9(3), 278-291.

WRAP: http://www.wrap.org.uk/food-drink/business-food-waste/hospitality-food-service

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