Portion size is the main reason for plate waste when we eat out

A new report from international climate action NGO, WRAP, highlights valuable opportunities for the Hospitality and Food Service sector to reduce the amount of food left on customers plates, but still offer value for money for diners.

WRAP’s report, conducted in July 2022, provides new insights into customer behaviours and attitudes to food waste when dining out. It found that on average, people today eat out 5.2 times per month – down from 5.6 times in March 2020, immediately before lockdown. Cost of living was cited as the main reason for the drop, impacting on both how often we eat out and what we order. But despite eating out less often, we are seemingly wasting more food when we do eat out, compared to two years ago.

Almost half of those questioned (45%) said they eat out less and a third (32%) said they order fewer takeaways. People are also adapting their behaviours when they do eat out, with 20% ordering fewer or cheaper drink options, 16% opting for less food or fewer dishes and 14% choosing more cost-effective options from the menu. By contrast, nearly one in three (32%) say their eating out habits have not changed, with these tending to be 18–44 year olds, people with children and those with higher incomes.

What customers want (and don’t want)

Larger portions have resulted in a self-reported increase in leftover food since March 2020, when WRAP last surveyed people. More than one in five people (22%) say that the portion size of one or more of the dishes at their most recent sit-down meal was ‘too much.’ This is up from 17% in March 2020.

More than three in five people (63%) are concerned about wasting food when they eat out, with the main worry being the waste of money. The survey found a strong association between over-portioning and levels of food left uneaten, consistent with both WRAP’s 2012 and 2020 research. However, the latest findings indicate that both portion sizing and reported levels of waste have increased relative to previous years. In 2012, 41% of people said ‘the portion was too big’ resulting in leftovers, today that has risen to 48%**.

Catherine David, Director of Business Collaboration and Change at WRAP, said: “While most food waste happens in our homes, plate waste when eating out is still significant, and there are ways that businesses and their customers can prevent this. A key challenge our research highlights is that while customers are concerned about food waste, large portions can be linked with their perception of value for money. But many are looking for more choice on portion size or better understanding of what is included in their dish, and there are several simple changes and tactics that can be adopted by businesses to ensure that we are feeding people and not bins.”

The top binned foods from WRAP’s research across all types of food venue are:

  • Chips/potatoes – 25%
  • Salads/coleslaw – 15%
  • Vegetables – 12%
  • Meat/fish, breads and sauces/condiments – 11%
  • Rice – 9%
  • Pasta – 6%

The new report, ‘Citizen Food Waste Attitudes and Behaviours Out of Home’, highlights opportunities for Hospitality and Food Service venues to help customers make more informed choices when eating out by building awareness about portion size and providing information on the menu.

The survey shows that people are open to a range of simple changes that food venues could make to support better portioning. Over half (53%) say they would find it useful to have clear information about side dishes and garnishes (including the choice to have something different or not at all), followed by having more choice on portion sizes (51%). Over two in five (45%) would find it useful to be given the opportunity to take leftovers home.

Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive at UKHospitality, said: “Reducing food waste is a key objective of hospitality’s 2040 net zero goal, with a target to halve waste in the next seven years. Venues have already taken huge strides in their operations to reduce waste and continually look for ways to get better, so this new toolkit from Guardians of Grub will be a valuable addition to our net zero journey.”

Andrea Zick, PA at OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie, said: “We have been measuring food waste here at OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie since 2019 and through this, we realised that there is a tension between serving guests generous portions, and food being left on plates. There still seems to be stigma around asking to take leftovers home, so we make a conscious effort to offer this to all guests. We believe that these open conversations help our front of house team identify dishes that are often uneaten, so we can look at actions to take; whether that’s reducing the size of the dish even by one or two chips, which can save kilos of potatoes in a week.”

Louisa Dodd, Senior Project Manager, Sustainable Restaurant Association said: “Many restaurants have been successful in reducing operational food waste, using the principles of Guardians of Grub. Customer plate waste remains a major challenge for businesses like The Restaurant Group (TRG), for whom plate waste is now 80% of their total waste. We’ve seen through the programme we co-created with TRG how key steps like measuring food waste, identifying key culprits, piloting menu changes and portion training can both reduce food waste and their carbon footprint, as well as save money and keep cost-conscious customers happy.”

New toolkit for businesses

Through its award-winning Guardians of Grub campaign, WRAP has developed simple steps that the industry can take to protect their profits by reducing food waste. The new Guardians of Grub toolkit guides businesses to measure food waste and identify plate waste ‘hot spots,’ how to reduce food waste and how to engage with teams and customers.

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