Ditch trays and downsize dishes to cut food waste

Catering firms and hospitality businesses should not offer food trays and need to reduce the size of their plates, according to new research into the causes of food waste amongst students.

Experts at Zero Waste Scotland conducted research with 130 students at the University of St Andrews.

They found that students often end up with an “over-abundance of food”, whether from taking too much in catered halls of residence or buying too much in supermarkets.

However, university catering teams can use “simple interventions” like removing trays from dining halls or reducing plate sizes to ‘nudge’ students towards only taking as much food as they need, explained research lead and report author Cat Acheson.

Last year a study published in the US found that removing trays at an American university canteen reduced leftovers on plates by 30%. A Danish study in 2013 also suggested that using smaller sized plates reduced food waste by 26% in a self-service setting.

Acheson said there were many complex factors behind the food being wasted, including lack of food management skills, and perceptions of food value. “The transition from living at home to living independently with their peers means that students are in a phase of discovery, and often waste food due to being unsure about what and how they like to eat,” she wrote.

“There may also be a perception that food served in catered halls of residence is low in value, and that there will always be more of it, and so it can be wasted without consequence,” she added.

She said that “negative attitudes regarding the quality and value of food should be challenged, particularly in halls of residence”.

University caterers should also make students more aware of the resources and labour invested in producing food.

In addition, the issue of food waste should be personalised, for example through publicising weekly or monthly food waste data and its associated carbon impacts. Posts and videos on social media are a good way to communicate this information, together with advice on reducing food waste.

Here is a summary of the ZWS findings:

What is wasted? Most commonly, it was leftovers from cooked meals, which accounted for 18% of recorded occurrences of avoidable food waste. Fresh vegetables were the second most commonly wasted type of food (17%), followed by fresh fruit (9%) and potato products such as chips and wedges (7%).

Why is food wasted? The top reason was that they didn’t like the food (29%). Next came cooking too much or taking too much in the catering hall (23%). The other common reasons food wastage were that the quantities being sold were too large (23%) and items going out of date (18%).

Where is it wasted? The most common location in which food was wasted was in a self-catering environment (48%), followed by in catered halls (39%), and when eating out at a café, restaurant or other hospitality environment (13%).

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