How to reduce food waste at the buffet

buffet line
buffet line


We are contract caterers for rail industry employees. We serve buffet-type meals three times daily, which our clients consume at inconsistent levels: short one day and overboard the next. Contractually, leftovers cannot be repurposed, and, because we have a fixed price per person, we can’t control the waste (first guy in grabs eight center cut chops, then discards half of them). I do ask my staff to maintain records of spoiled or outdated food product, but not waste factors that may be a result of gluttony. What economic advantages are at my disposal in this situation?

–  VP operations, contract foodservice, Lawrenceville, Ga.


Thanks for this follow-up to last week’s question about donating leftovers. I think there are two separate issues here that need to be addressed:

  • What are some things you can do to reduce plate waste at your buffet?
  • Is there a way to benefit financially from better tracking and management of wasted and donated food?


On your first question of reducing plate waste in a buffet environment, there are a few things you can try. These include trayless dining, smaller plates, staffing the buffet (even if guests can keep asking for more, they are often self-conscious about doing so when being served), preplating items, and replenishing the buffet with smaller batches more frequently so that the display looks less overabundant. Changes like those can help maintain hospitality while discouraging overserving. ReFED, a national nonprofit focused on preventing and reducing food waste, recently released a Restaurant Food Waste Action Guide with many such tips.

For economic benefits like cost savings and tax incentives for donation of surplus food, I reached out to Steve Finn, vice president of food waste reduction at LeanPath, a Portland, Ore.-based technology company that helps foodservice operations reduce waste. He writes, “Your contractual situation is one of many examples that lead to systemic overproduction of food among food service providers today—and excessive, costly levels of waste. Your situation is a clear example of the need for education at the consumer level to properly value food resources and trigger behavior change toward responsible consumption patterns which reduce waste. Making food waste visible, especially the ‘post-consumer’ or ‘plate waste’ aspect—is an important way to change behavior by connecting consumers to the amount and value of daily food waste in a particular venue. This can be accomplished by conducting food waste audits and sharing the results with patrons. Extrapolating the daily figures to yearly amounts while incorporating potential environmental and social gains (such as greenhouse gas emissions or meals saved) makes the results even more impactful. Incorporating a messaging program is an excellent way to encourage responsible consumption in your environment. LeanPath’s Spark product, for example, is a digital platform that displays food waste data at site level in conjunction with powerful messaging on food waste—encouraging consumers to select appropriate quantities while also providing culinarians with insights into optimal production amounts.

“Beyond seeking the maximum benefits of preventing the waste of food upfront, look for options to put the excess food to productive use. For leftover items that have not gone out to be served, can you engage a partner in a food donation program? For the balance, can you partner with a vendor seeking food inputs for energy production via anaerobic digestion? Or can you partner with a composting operation, converting that food into a valuable soil amendment rather than sending it to landfill? All such efforts have the ability to reduce trash disposal costs, while charitable donations can bring added value in the form of tax deductions. They also demonstrate clear social responsibility, which tends to inspire the workforce.”

These food waste reduction practices can also help to provide a competitive edge on contracts, as sustainability plans are of increasing interest. As part of that process, you may be able to renegotiate on the definition of a “leftover” as well, gaining some efficiencies through streamlining inventory and preps.

More on food waste reduction for restaurants here.

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