Toward Cleaner Plates: A Study of Plate Waste in Food Service

August 12, 2019

NRDC estimates that 20 percent of all the wasted food in the U.S. is plate waste in food service settings—the food we are served in restaurants, colleges, hotels, workplace cafeterias and other food service settings that we leave on our plates and don’t eat. While many food service providers have made significant investments in measuring and managing the food waste in their kitchens, the issue of plate waste has received much less attention and can be a thorny topic for those in the dining services world. How much food are people being served (or serving themselves) that they leave behind and how can that waste be slashed? Those are the questions that NRDC and Bon Appetit Management Company explored in our study Toward Cleaner Plates: A Study of Plate Waste in Food Service

Based on plate scrapings of more than 12,000 people and guest surveys at 20 Bon Appetit-managed accounts across the country, we found that:

  • Edible food wasted per guest in college locations was more than double the waste per guest in business and industry accounts like corporate headquarters
  • Edible food waste per guest in all-you-care-to-eat cafes was nearly 40 percent higher than in retail accounts where guests pay for the foods they choose
  • Edible waste per guest at lunch and dinner was more than double the per-guest waste at breakfast.

Practices like consistently offering tasting spoons and training food service staff to correctly portion food when serving it were strongly associated with lower waste. However, we found that practices like using smaller plates and “going trayless” were not associated with lower waste in the participating locations, countering conventional wisdom. Per-guest edible waste was three times as much in some locations as others, suggesting that organizational culture, consumer education and other factors may also play a significant role. By gathering this data and sharing it, we hope to fuel more open acknowledgement of this issue and more focused analysis of the drivers and solutions to the food left on our plates.