Foodservice Footprint Plate-waste2 Plate waste spikes despite cost crisis Out of Home News Analysis

Plate waste spikes despite cost crisis

A new survey has found people are eating out less often than in 2020 but wasting more food when they do. Nick Hughes reports.

Give me the headlines. New research from Wrap has found that people are wasting more food when eating out of home than they were before the first covid-19 lockdown. Based on a survey of 4,000 adults carried out in July of last year the charity estimated that on average 14.8% of the main dish was left uneaten compared with 13% when the survey was last run in March 2020. The amount of food left uneaten also increased between 2020 and 2022 for starters, side orders and desserts. Chips and potatoes were the most frequently wasted foods followed by salads and vegetables. 

That seems unusual in the midst of a cost of living crisis. It does. In fact, Wrap found that people are eating out less overall but wasting more food when they do. On average people said they were eating out 5.2 times per month in 2022, down from 5.6 times in March 2020.

So what’s to blame for all this plate waste? By far and away the biggest factor is portion size; 40% of those surveyed said the main reason for leaving food uneaten was that the portion size was larger than expected, while 11% said it was because they ordered too much. For 15% the issue was that the meal included things like salad and garnishes that they didn’t like or fancy and 10% cited not liking the taste of the food.

Haven’t large portion sizes always been a significant driver of plate waste? They have but the problem appears to be getting worse. More than one in five people (22%) surveyed last year said the portion size of one or more of the dishes at their most recent sit-down meal was ‘too much’, up from 17% in March 2020.

So operators just need to offer smaller portions? It’s not quite as simple as that. Wrap’s director of business collaboration and change, Catherine David, explained that “large portions can be linked with [people’s] perception of value for money” – an important selling point for businesses at a time of tight disposable incomes. However there is a sizeable cohort of diners who are open to operators doing things differently: 71% are positive about the idea of having a greater range of portion sizes to choose from and 72% are positive about the sizes of portions being reflected in the price.

Do people care about all of this waste being generated when eating out? Mostly they do. More than three in five people (63%) said they were concerned about wasting food when they eat out. The environmental impact of food waste is considered less of a worry than concern over wasting their own money.

What’s stopping people taking leftover food home with them? Nothing in theory but in practice there are several barriers. Although almost half (47%) said they often or occasionally ask for doggy bags to take leftovers home (up from 43% in 2020), the social embarrassment of doing so is identified as a key barrier to further adoption.

Could operators not take the embarrassment away by proactively offering to package up leftovers? Good point, and the survey suggests just 32% of venues currently do this often or occasionally despite there being appetite for it among customers. In fact, almost two thirds (64%) of people surveyed were very or fairly positive about being proactively offered a doggy bag to take leftovers home. Andrea Zick from the Oxo Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie said “there still seems to be stigma around asking to take leftovers home, so we make a conscious effort to offer this to all guests”. She added that having these conversations at the table helps the front of house team identify dishes that are often uneaten “so we can look at actions to take”.

What kind of other actions can businesses take? As well as enthusiasm for being proactively offered a doggy bag and for venues providing a wider range and price of portion sizes, Wrap’s research found that 63% of people were positive towards more guidance being offered by waiting staff on the size of portions they could expect to receive. Over half (53%), meanwhile, said they would find it useful to have clear information about sides and garnishes, including the choice to have something different or not at all. Indeed, the only proposal that divided opinion was the idea of reducing portion sizes to keep prices the same given the current high rate of inflation. Around one in three (34%) said they were positive to this idea, whereas a similar proportion (29%) were negative. On balance, however, the research found “there are several simple changes and tactics that can be adopted by businesses to ensure that we are feeding people and not bins,” said Wrap’s David.