Reducing Food Waste at Your Meetings and Events

Do you know that most operations throw away 4 to 10 percent of the food they order before it even reaches a plate? Let’s look at some points on how to control and reduce waste at events.

Serve less food: At conferences do people really want to be stuffed full?
Avoid over catering: Accurately estimate the volume of food required considering the number of attendees, the event type and the timing of activities or breaks.
Accurately brief caterers & chefs: Communicate honestly the likely event attendance to caterers and food vendors.
Don’t overbook: Ensure you don’t book too many food stallholders considering the likely event attendance.
Attendee uptake: Verify whether attendees may bring their own food and adjust communications and logistics accordingly. Ensure an even spread of types of food options that are likely to appeal to your attendees so that no individual food stallholders are less attended than others, leading to food waste.
Pricing: Ensure food pricing does not lead to lower sales volumes than anticipated.
Communicate: Inform attendees in advance what food will be available and at what price. Ask for dietary requirements in advance to reduce wastage and satisfy attendees.
Food Salvage Planning: Have a food salvage/re-distribution program in place. Request that caterers do not uncover/ open/serve all of the food at once, so that if over supply has occurred, the perishable food will have been handled correctly to allow for donation to food salvage programs.
Reusable: Use washable and reusable crockery and cutlery rather than single-use disposables.
Reduce packaging: If the food must be served in disposables, go for a less wasteful option such as a serviette rather than a paper plate for “finger foods”. Serve pizzas on trays rather than in pizza boxes. Do not put lids on cups and takeouts if they will be consumed immediately.
Avoid landfilling of disposable service ware: Use disposables that can be recycled or composted.
Take back the tap: Provide tap water rather than bottled water. The US consumes 1500 plastic water bottles every second and 60% of these will never be recycled.
Reduce boxes: Encourage caterers and food vendors to receive their fresh produce in re-usable boxes rather than single use disposables such as foam boxes. There are many services available that have take-back/exchange options for delivery boxes.
Cleaning: Use washable cleaning cloths rather than paper towel disposables.

The over-abundant display of buffets and receptions, large individual portions, and/or too many courses served for plated dinners are not as well received as they once were. There are, of course, exceptions for the elite, but even the elite are becoming wiser regarding waste due to excess. It is reported that we planners have been the most difficult in the industry to convince of the need to be more responsible about how much we order for meal functions. Let’s take a closer look at that to see how we can overcome our fear and do better. First of all, let’s answer why.

There is a growing public awareness of the need to be more responsible about how our food resources are being used (sustainability). This heightened awareness is becoming nearly as compelling a driver for change as the increasing awareness of the health issues that arise from overeating became just a few years ago. Sustainability is no longer just a fringe movement concern.

It has moved into the mainstream thinking of our communities and must be considered when planning our events. Our meeting attendees have become ever more watchful about everything that affects the environment, and waste elimination is high on their list of priorities. Our habit of ordering too much for planned meal functions at meetings and events increases cost unnecessarily and creates literally tons of wasted food. The meeting and event industry mirrors in percentage the following statistics for the USA:
− Food waste in the USA has increased 50% since the 1970s. − Up to 40% of food produced, raised and caught in the USA goes uneaten.
− That could feed 25 million of the 45 million Americans reported to suffer from hunger.
− Uneaten, uncomposted food is a pollutant that creates 16% of U.S. methane emissions and comprises the highest percentage of waste in landfills (21%).

There is a fine line between ordering enough food to satisfy attendees and ordering more than is needed. That fine line can be developed into a science for planners who are wise enough to conduct in-depth research on each new client before planning begins for their functions. They can be doggedly diligent about record-keeping of actual attendance and consumption following every meal function for every client. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough, not only for food and beverages (F&B) but for all other components of the event. Think trickle-down effect. It can be huge.

 A question often asked about F&B by meeting and event planners:
How can I be sure to order enough food to satisfy a group of X number of attendees?

A better question to ask:
How can I be sure to order enough food to satisfy a group of X number of attendees while minimizing waste?
Here are six easy things you can do to master your fear of running out of food:

1. Chefs are your very best resource. Talk to them. They are very knowledgeable about how much food guests consume based on the characteristics of the group. Listen carefully with an open mind to their suggestions for alternative menu items. They are passionate and proud of what they do and they stay informed about what is available from local farmers for fresher ingredients that will equate to more interesting menus boasting of a local flair. (Attendees love that!) Chefs can also order bulk items that minimize cost and waste if you finalize your menus far enough in advance (30 days). Order vegetables. Try to provide as many vegetarian options as possible. Remember that meat eaters can eat vegetarian meals, but vegetarians can’t eat meat. If a meat option runs out, they still have that vegetarian option. Have a good understanding of how your chef’s operation works in general and how it works in a particular place. Different locations pose different challenges. Order from a kitchen’s menu rather than asking for customized meals. Sometimes ordering off the menu and trusting the chef is the best thing you can do. It allows them to be creative and flexible in what they bring to you.

2. Limit use of buffets, the most wasteful way to serve food. If you must go with buffets instead of plated dinners, wait to refresh a station until it is empty instead of 5% to 10% empty, and then refill it with less each time. It is not a bad thing to run out of some food items on a buffet station. Full use is actually becoming the measure of success, and wasteful leftovers are considered a failure.

3. Keep food that has been prepared for the event in the kitchen at a safe temperature and resist replenishing banquet stations too quickly. Leftovers can be provided to employees or donated to community organizations. We have been fearful of donating food in the past, but most states have adopted Good Samaritan laws to protect donating organizations. Verify if this law exists where you have booked your event.

4. Keep accurate records! You may grow tired of hearing me say this, but keep records of how many people actually attend your functions. Document how much and what kind of food and beverages were ordered versus how much was consumed. It is vitally important that you know the eating and drinking preferences of every group you manage as this will improve the accuracy of your food and beverage guarantees tenfold. This in turn translates into savings for your F&B budget by reducing irresponsible waste.

5. Seek experienced advice regarding first-time events. The greatest risk for waste is when planning for a group that has never met or held a similar function in the past. If it is a first-time event, you may have to use your best guess on attendance based on your experience and that of other planners who have managed similar situations. First-time events traditionally have far fewer numbers attend than optimistic organizers expect. There are always exceptions, but resist the pressure from the organizer and go with the advice of the experienced if you don’t want to blow your budget.

6. Be strong of heart. Order less than your actual registration number. Not all from your group will show up for one reason or another and those that do will not eat every food item that is served. Some will eat heartily and some will eat lightly. Most chefs will prepare 5% over your guaranteed number for each food item to be served. Discuss a backup plan allowing food items the kitchen keeps in stock to be pulled and prepared quickly if attendance exceeds expectations. This will save you from a panic attack when you finally take the leap to conservative and responsible ordering rather than ordering too much “just to be safe.” Whether it’s a plate overloaded with lasagna and salad, a buffet brimming with scrambled eggs and bacon, or a break table piled high with pastries, when it comes to feeding attendees, meeting professionals tend to go whole hog so nobody comes away feeling unsatisfied or unhappy. At the average meeting, however, half of that food (or more) can go uneaten. What happens after it’s whisked from view? Sometimes it’s composted or donated to local charities, but meeting professionals remain nervous about the potential liabilities of donating food that has been discarded from events. The reality, however, is that in many states and provinces, people who donate food are protected by Good Samaritan laws. The only way you can be sued is if you donated food that you knew has been contaminated. So, check with the local authorities. That’s why the food-donation system works. It has rules. Oftentimes, just as in many American kitchens, leftover food is scraped into the trash and eventually hauled to the dump. It’s the inconvenient truth of event planning. We all know it’s happening and we don’t like it, but we don’t know how to address it. To be fair, food waste in the meetings industry simply mirrors North American cultural trends.

Let’s look at some numbers!
According to a 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40% of the food that the United States produces, raises, or catches goes uneaten. That amounts to $165 billion each year. Canada is responsible for another $27 billion. But even more sobering is the staggering social and environmental cost. The annual tally of wasted food could feed 25 million Americans, and one in six people are food-insecure. MM&E To learn more about Chef Martin Lopez, visit his website at

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