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Reducing Food Waste at Events

May 30, 2012

I mentioned on twitter earlier this week that we’ve been talking about not wasting food at home quite a bit. Since the conversation was temporarily halted by my four year old (see below), I’m going to turn my attention to reducing food waste at events.

Why a Focus on Food Waste?

Jonathan Bloom’s (fantastic) website and blog states that Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food they produce for consumption. That comes at an annual cost of more than $100 billion. When we add to the equation the amount of resources including water and energy that is involved in producing food, the numbers become even more staggering. For an example, see my recent post on the footprints of cheese.

We waste food at a number of points throughout the value chain, but when it comes to events, an area that is in our direct control is that of portion sizes. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control released an infographic showing that today’s average restaurant meal is four times larger than it was in the 1950s. I see this as a call to action for our industry to scale back our portion sizes as well.

CDC The New (Ab)normal

What’s Wrong with Composting and Donating Leftovers?

In most of the conversations I’ve had about reducing food waste at events, the top two strategies that I hear that are either in use or that are recommended are to compost food and donate leftovers. Let me start by saying that I think these are both valuable options, and should be used after we do one important step: reduce the amount of waste that is produced in the first place. Let’s examine each issue:

  • Composting: Yes, composting food and using it for fertilizer is a good thing. What’s better though is to not throw away high quality food, regardless if it ends up in a garden bed or in a landfill. In some ways, I find that composting gives us license to not focus on waste reduction in the first place, much in the same way that carbon offsets help us to ignore reducing carbon emissions.
  • Food donations:  These are also a great thing to do, and yet I’d rather see us reduce food waste and redirect some of that $100 billion dollars to support food banks. That way, they can get the types of food that they most need, and can leverage their buying power to do so in an affordable way. That said, I do strongly encourage food donations after waste reduction strategies are implemented. One of the biggest objections I hear about donating food is a concern over liability. Regulations about food donations vary in different jurisdictions, but many have legislation to encourage food donations. I recommend looking into the applicable regulations where you are holding your event, and follow smart practices such as working with reputable partners, and ensuring that they are able to meet food safety standards. For more information on food donation regulations, see below:

Five Tips for Reducing Food Waste from Events

I must admit to being really inspired by Jonathan Foley’s 5 Step Plan for How to Double Global Food Production by 2050 and Reduce Environmental Damage. Some elements of his plan can be applied directly by event professionals, while others fall to the responsibility of by policy makers and agricultural producers. The tips below include actions that are within the direct control of event professionals and the chefs that we work with. With all of these recommendations, follow safe food handling practices and regulations for your area.

  1. Serve less food to begin with:
    Does anybody really need dessert with lunch? The portions and frequency of food service at meetings and events has always astounded me. By reducing the amount of food that we serve, we can reduce the amount wasted. I also recommend reducing plate sizes at buffets and receptions. Jonathan Bloom has a page dedicated to tracking the results of eliminating food trays in college dining halls and the impact it has had on reducing food waste. Another relevant study was conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink and co-authors spurred the Small Plate Movement™ that promotes utilizing 10″ diameter plates to decrease the amount of food people eat, without having an effect on their perceived fullness or satisfaction.  A secondary benefit of cutting back on excess food, especially the high sugar kind, is that it makes your events more productive. Many event venues are now starting to embrace the concept of brain-friendly foods, as outlined in this article in Meetings & Conventions with great recommendations by Andrea Sullivan. In my experience, plated meals tend to reduce food waste over buffets as food quantities are more predictable, and plated meals tend to be less full than with a buffet.
  2. Reduce upstream waste by buying ugly food:
    Food at events tends to be perfect: same size, same shape, same colour, same flavour. We’ve lost our appreciation for ugly food over the years, and it’s time for it to make a come-back. I remember the first time I tried a friend’s grandmother’s tomato sauce. The mason jars were her prized possessions and she told us about the weekends where her family would come together to make the sauce. They had a connection with a local farm where they would get all the bruised, overripe tomatoes as her grandmother insisted that these made the best sauce. I have to agree, I’ve never had better. We have the potential to reduce upstream waste by creating a market for great food, particularly produce, that might otherwise be plowed over. My latest favourite ugly food: grapes. When they start to go a little soft, pop them in the freezer – at your first try of these mini-no-cook sorbets, you’ll quickly learn why ice wine is so sweet. As an added benefit, ugly food tends to be economical. Chefs can increase quality, strengthen relationships with suppliers and reduce costs by looking to incorporate ugly food into their menus.
  3. Plan for day 3 soup:
    Planning to serve soup on day three of your event allows you to pick foods for the first two days that lend themselves well to making stocks or soups later in the program if there are leftovers. These can be supplemented with additional food (preferably using items regularly stocked in the kitchen) if the leftovers are not sufficient. Work with the chef to design menus that will work well for this and to ensure sufficient staffing. Remember to include bones or trimmings that might have ended up in the compost (or the landfill!) as well. Celery leaves add great flavour and onion skins add colour to stocks.
  4. Pay extra attention to carbon and water intensive foods:
    Some foods, including beef and dairy, require high amounts of energy and water to be produced. When these items are thrown away, food waste issues are compounded. Cheese trays stand out to me as one of the biggest sources of potential waste. At events, I’ll often see them filled with several varieties, and by the end of the event, many are still covered. Now, I’ll admit it: I love cheese so I’m not proposing eliminating cheese (or beef) from menus. What I am proposing that we serve smaller portions of carbon and water intensive foods, and that we be particularly attentive to adding them to buffets or reception platters where chances of food waste are greater. As Jonathan Foley notes in his plan, “Only 62 percent of crops become human food; 35 percent feed meat and dairy animals (the remainder is for biofuels and other uses). If humans switched to all-plant diets, all that agricultural land could produce 50 percent more human food, because feeding crops to animals that then become meat is a highly inefficient way to transfer plant energy to people.” While Foley does not see a switch to be likely, he notes that a small shift away from meat would mean that we could net far more calories for humans. This is certainly feasible for events. We can easily reduce the frequency with which we serve resource intensive items including beef and cheese with alternatives such as fish, chicken or vegetarian meals.
  5. Tattoo your bananas:
    This is perhaps the most obvious point, but to reduce food waste, serve people food that they like. This week, as part of my previously mentioned attempt to reduce food waste at home, I’ve taken to tattooing bananas. I’ve been carefully carving my kids’ names, words and drawings on their bananas and letting them brown in those spots revealing the hidden messages by lunch time. The best part is that they’ve actually been eating them and asking for more bananas for lunch! The point here is not to literally tattoo bananas for your event, but to make small modifications to food to make it more appealing for people to eat and not waste. Great flavour, beautiful presentation and a bit of personalization can go a long way to reducing food waste.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2012 5:49 am

    Great post, Mariela. A few quick reinforcing points began bouncing around in my head as I read:
    * You’re right — it’s astounding that we (sometimes) think about what to do with the excess food once we’ve wasted it, but never about how to reduce the waste in the first place. And we aren’t just wasting the food itself. It’s also about the energy and the rest of the supply chain involved in delivering that food, then delivering the leftovers wherever we think they need to go.
    * When you refer to carbon- and water-intensive foods — In How Bad Are Bananas, another book you’ve reviewed on your blog, Mike Berners-Lee points out that the milk in a cup of coffee or tea has a higher carbon footprint than the actual hot beverage, since the milk is an output of cattle production. Nobody will cut 100% of their footprint, but we won’t cut any of it (at least, not deliberately) if we aren’t looking for it.
    * To point out the blindingly obvious, the attention to portion size and food quantities translates directly into cost savings. So, remind me again why the vast majority of us in the industry see sustainability as a cost, not a profit booster?

    So I have to ask…when are you getting your dog? And will you name it Cous Cous?

    • May 31, 2012 8:37 am

      Mitchell – Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      Yes! Cost savings are a big benefit to smaller portions. Both for the supplier, and for the planner. Several years ago I used to ask to split my lunch service at events to serve the dessert and coffee for afternoon break. I would still pay for the extra staffing, but it reduced food consumption and costs. Since then, I actually prefer to skip the dessert altogether.

      As for the dog, I tried the “Who is going to clean up after it?” line only to hear “You can, Mama, you’re really good at it.”

  2. October 8, 2012 4:04 pm

    Mariela, I agree with Mitchell—a great post with strong supporting information.

    One of the ideas I present to planners and suppliers on accommodating different dietary needs at events, is to ask for the needs in advance. If they don’t, they they’re not only wasting food, but also the money spent on the meals. And, if a new meal has to be created, you’ve doubled to money spent on that meal.

    • October 8, 2012 9:40 pm

      Tracy, great point! I’m really happy to see that you’re not only thinking about waste reduction, but also about dietary requirements.


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