In restaurants, under-prepping risks putting the team up a creek called we’ve-run-out-in-the-middle-of-service. Over-prepping means throwing a super-tight margin in the bin along with your salsa. That’s the daily dilemma faced by chefs. Over-preparation is one of the categories of food waste in commercial kitchens. Then there’s food that is edible but often discarded, such as peelings and offcuts. The extent to which this is avoidable depends on the creativity of the chef, and her audience. The third category, display and plate waste, is in my opinion the trickiest to manage.
Woodstock, a family run, neighbourhood restaurant was 30 years old when we decided to close it in 2022. It was self-service. A hearty plate of food matched by fast, friendly service was our USP. I love the speed of this style of service, being able to grab a bite during the day, pick and choose my breakfast in the morning. But even with culinary tricks such as custom-made false-bottom bowls to make it look like there’s more on display, or serving casserole-style dishes that can safely be cooled for service the next day, display waste is a hazard wherever there’s a buffet or hot counter. We eat with our eyes, and nobody wants that last slice of pie. At breakfast time, if food is in hot holding, then scrambled or fried eggs, hash browns and streaky bacon are not usable later. Similarly, day-old pain au chocolat, though still perfectly edible, is not acceptable to guests.
Research from the UK’s food waste NGO Wrap shows almost half (48 per cent) of people say portion size is the main reason they leave food when eating out. Advocating for food waste reduction, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue recently urged businesses to look at their food waste and portion sizes, noting that people could always ask for seconds (and pay for them).
Value for money is a significant driver in any industry, and in hospitality, it’s a bit of a battle. There is a natural inclination to provide, and a significant expectation of, generosity with portions. You don’t want to be accused of being tight. Nobody wants to go out for a hard-earned meal and come home hungry. That push-pull piles up.
In the US after the second World War, subsidies artificially drove down the price of food, which made big portions (which grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s) an easy way for food service and manufacturers to compete. Though fresh produce has become relatively expensive, portion sizes have stuck and, perversely, when meals are so expensive, the marginal cost of additional calories is a small price to pay for competitiveness.
I suspect over-ordering, rather than portion size, is my problem. McConalogue says we can always ask for seconds. Gluttony tells me to order up front. To do my bit as a consumer, I’ve started not ordering for myself when the family goes out for lunch, knowing that we will have enough to go around, and we can hoover up the leftovers on the kids’ plates. But being the last of the big spenders doesn’t go down well with struggling restaurateurs, and while I can be food frugal at lunch, I’m not so careful at dinner time, my down time. We were lucky to be in a gorgeous local Italian last week in London and ordered two pizzas and two kids’ pastas between the four of us. Even though I work for FoodCloud, where our mantra is that no good food should go to waste, and despite having the food storage capacity of camels, we left roughly a third of the food on our plates. That’s more than the 25 per cent of food waste that the Irish EPA estimates occurs in restaurants and food service.
Both the Environmental Protection Authority’s Food Waste Charter and Fáilte Ireland’s Waste Management Climate Action Guide set out steps that food businesses can take to reduce their food waste: understanding the problem (and the cost), getting a benchmark, setting goals and evaluating interventions. These might include managing customer expectations about what’s going to be immediately available, what they need to wait 10 minutes for, and how it’s going to be better. Or it might mean making “less is more” cool with shorter menus and cleverly designed buffets serving foods that won’t spoil as quickly, such as granola or whole fruits.
After all, as Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, says, when it comes to food waste reduction, the revolution must be delicious.
Angela Ruttledge is head of public engagement at Food Cloud