6 Ways to Reduce Waste When Eating at Restaurants

In a perfect zero-waste world we would cook every meal at home, in our waste-free kitchen and never worry about restaurant waste ever again. But for most of us that is not an option and we will eventually have to eat out at a restaurant.

Restaurants generate a huge amount of waste, but according to an NPR survey, that waste is a low priority for restaurant managers who are more focused on other issues, like revenue and customer satisfaction.

That’s why it is important for us as customers to take steps to reduce the amount of waste we create when eating out, and make it known that waste is a priority to us, so it needs to be a priority for businesses also.

Here are 6 things that you can do when eating out to help produce less trash.

1. Explain to your server about your low waste lifestyle

The most proactive thing you can when dining out is just letting your server know about your lifestyle.

As an ex-waitress and current restaurant industry employee, when someone informs me about something they want to avoid (like an allergy or dietary restriction) I can do a much better job of making sure that everything that hits their table is suitable for them than if they tried to control that themselves. Sometimes customers try to read descriptions of meals and ask for substitutions or modifications to make the meal suitable to their needs, but trust me, if the server knows what your specific needs are at the beginning of the meal, they can take a thorough inventory before bringing anything to your table.

I’m a vegetarian and I run into problems sometimes when I don’t let servers know that at the beginning of the meal. Like the time when I ordered a salad and asked for the chicken and bacon to be taken out, but failed to realize that the dressing it came with had bits of bacon in it. If I had let the server know about my restriction she could have pointed that out and offered an alternative.

The same is true with a trash free lifestyle. Unlike you, your server knows everything that is going to come with your meal, so they can leave off things that you won’t want, like excessive garnishes, extra napkins, paper linings, wet naps, straws, etc. They will make sure you want bread and butter before bringing it over, and check with you before bringing you drink refills.

It also lets the server be more understanding when you ask for modifications to your meal.

2. Order smaller portions 

Working in the restaurant industry, I see the amount of food that is wasted every day, and it is not pretty. The super-size phenomenon that is exists in our country has created out of control portion sizes at restaurants. Most people can never finish all the food on their plate, so it just gets thrown out.

To avoid having leftover food on your plate, stick to smaller portions. Order “a la carte” from the side dishes section of the menu or split an entrée with someone else at your table. This is when explaining to your waitress can come in handy because they will be understanding, rather than thinking you are just looking for a cheap meal.

You can also find tapas or “small plates” restaurants in your area that serve smaller portions. Just make sure that you order the dishes one at a time, rather than a bunch all at once to make sure that you are only ordering as much as you can eat.

3. Ask your server to hold off on things you know you won’t eat

That goes for both the large and small things. I can’t tell you how many tomato slices are tossed to the side of the plate to be thrown out because customers didn’t say hold the tomato. Read what comes with the dish that you’re ordering and make sure everything that comes to your table will get eaten.

If you are going to pick all of the olives out of your salad, just ask for it without. If you are offered bread to start but you aren’t really that hungry, then decline. If your entrée comes with two sides but you only want one, then just stick with the one. If you know you don’t really want (or need) that heaping pile of fries with your sandwich just say you don’t want them, or even ask for a half portion.

Often we get hung up on trying to get the most bang for our buck, so we want to get everything that is offered with our meals. But all that extra food is often just getting tossed or expanding our waistlines, so the money isn’t really going to good use.

Try to realize that at the end of the day you are spending the same amount on the meal whether you put half of it in a landfill or leave half of it for the restaurant to give to someone else.

4. Order zero-waste drinks

Drinks at the bar certainly create less food waste than dinner in the dining room, but there is still a lot of trash generation at the bar.

Order your cocktail without a straw or napkin. Try asking for no coaster. Some places will prefer you use a coaster because it protects the bar top, but again, explaining yourself helps. They might offer a reusable coaster or be understanding and not make a fuss. Ask the bartender to hold off on unnecessary garnishes. And drink draft beer rather than canned or bottled whenever possible (kegs from draft beers get refilled once they are empty, while bottles just get thrown out).

5. Avoid fast food, take-out, and buffet style restaurants 

Think about how much trash is created from one meal when you eat at a fast food or takeout restaurant. Everything is individually packaged and then the whole meal is bagged together, usually in non-recyclable or compostable materials. There are no reusable options when eating fast food or take out, and a less waste lifestyle is all about using reusable. So just avoid those types of restaurants altogether.

Buffets are also incredibly wasteful restaurant styles. I used to work in a restaurant that shared a kitchen with a buffet, so I’ve seen it first hand. The amount of food waste is astonishing.

First of all, most people take way more food than they can finish because, hey, it’s all you eat! Tons of food is tossed out by customers whose eyes are bigger than their stomach.

Plus, at the end of the day the workers have to go through and toss out rows and rows of leftover food. The buffet has to stay stocked until close to keep the buffet looking full. But at the end of each day the extra food can’t be saved and reused the next day, so it has to be thrown away.

Strict health regulations also mean that once food is put out, it can only stay out for a certain amount of time. This means that throughout the day partially or completely full trays of food have to be thrown away.

If you have to eat at a buffet (maybe it’s the only option at your cousin’s wedding) try getting food in small amounts and going back for seconds if you’re still hungry rather than loading up 3 plates on your first go-round.

6. Support restaurants that waste less 

Despite the results of the NPR survey, some restaurant owners are more concerned with their waste than others. Maybe in the future we will see more restaurants like Sandwich Me In, the zero-waste Chicago restaurant who produced only 8 gallons of trash in two years. But for now, look for low-waste qualities in your dining locations of choice. Like places that use reusable napkins, coasters, tablecloths, silverware and serving dishes. Avoid restaurants that use too many disposable items. If you find a restaurant that composts or tries to cut down food waste by using every part of the animal then that is a definite bonus.

There are restaurant owners out there that feel the same way about waste as we do, we just need to find them and support them.

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