How Caterers can Help Reduce Food Waste
Christy Cook
Christy Cook
Sustainability Performance
& Field Support
Sodexo North America

This is the third in a series about food waste and the social license. You might recall from our first post that the concept of social license is about asking our customers to accept practices in the food experience that reduce waste. So far, we’ve discussed how the concept of the social license can reduce food waste in restaurants. Today we are going to tackle catering – a very complicated and difficult beast.

Reducing food waste can be more difficult for caterers because of the pressure to offer a perfect experience. Imagine this scenario: It’s a gorgeous autumn day. A beautiful couple just shared their wedding vows, and this couple and their guests are now headed to the buffet. It’s getting close to the end of the buffet line but – gasp – one of entrees has run out and is no longer available. Can you imagine the pressure that comes with potentially ruining someone’s special day? This is a caterer’s worst nightmare, and I bet any caterers reading this now are uncomfortable just thinking about it.

“When it comes to hospitality, there seems to be a moat around a moat to protect against running out of food. There is huge opportunity to reduce food waste and food costs here without customers ever noticing a difference,” says Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist at the National Resources Defense Council.

So let’s talk about how we can build some bridges across these moats so that together we can create an exceptional catered event without wasting food.

What can the caterer do?

  • Display informational signs telling customers what it means to be attending a no-waste catering event
    • Entrance
    • Table tents
    • Invitations
    • Event website
    • All means of communication should at a minimum include a standard line about “No-waste events”
  • Talk to your catering client about what you plan to do if food gets low or runs out, and arm the client with “values-driven” talking points to share with guests
  • Ensure that the culinary team does not prepare more food than what is instructed
  • During all-day meetings with various services in one day, place remaining food items on smaller plates for guests to enjoy later
  • Always follow safe food handling practices and coordinate with a local hunger-relief organization to take surplus
  • For recurring events, make note of eating habits for future use


How can you engage the client or prospect?

  • Agree that it’s acceptable for food to run low or out in some cases, with the understanding that no one will leave hungry
  • Discuss how much food will be prepared, including pieces per person or ounces per person, so the client understands the caterer is preparing an appropriate amount of food
  • Discuss the policy, if it exists, regarding how much extra food will be prepared over the guaranteed customer count

The key to a successful no-waste catered event is communication… early and often. There need to be open lines of communication between the caterer, the culinary team, and the client. They need to agree that it’s acceptable for food to run low or run out in some cases, with the understanding that no one will leave hungry or disappointed. In fact, if done right, everyone will leave with the sense of having helped both people and planet. Clear, constant and consistent communication between client and guest is equally crucial and the cater needs to ensure that takes place effectively.

7 comments on “How Caterers can Help Reduce Food Waste

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      Christy Cook says:

      Thanks Lillian! I have been fascinated by the idea of the social license since I worked on the ReFED project. I think all of us intuitively have some awareness of this idea but I love that the ReFED team named it and we can now address the idea for solutions.

      Take care!

  • Avatar

    I worked as a high-volume catering manager for nearly ten years. While I agree that the fail-safe mode of catering can create an obscene amount of waste, I feel that it would take an unusual amount of tact, and a very progressive client to accept a “no-waste” event.
    What I have realized over the years is that there are many types of events that do not require one portion of everything to be prepared, particularly main courses and side dishes. If you are preparing a hot luncheon buffet with four possible sides, for example, I can guarantee that no one will take a full portion of all four choices. This is where creative portioning can really save a lot of waste and money. The same with main courses…the larger variety you offer, the less of each one will be taken. You can optimize the choices by making half portions, so that even if someone wants two different entrees, they will, in effect, only be taking one full portion.
    I have also noticed that for a typical business luncheon buffet, most everyone will take less than what would traditionally be a full portion. I would sign this off to peer pressure, and the desire to appear one is eating healthy. This is, obviously more prevalent in some functions and locations than others. In any “event,” I fully agree that good record-keeping is a necessity for annual or repeated affairs, so you can use the personal history and eating habits of that particular group to your food-cost advantage.
    Waste is far more controlled at a plated affair, because you know exactly how many of every food item needs to be prepared. The labor and cleaning costs are quite a bit higher.

    • Avatar
      Christy Cook says:


      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! I think you made an excellent point about portions for business luncheons and multiple entrees. I can tell you’ve catered a meal or two! =) I think it’s important to share these types of thoughts with other team members that might have less experience so they can share this insight with clients to increase their personal credibility and reduce waste at the same time. I’m very intrigued by the idea and inspired to incorporate these type of examples into a waste free catering planner or guide. I think it could make some positive change!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. It’s much appreciated!

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    Obviously no buffet because you are inviting waste. Serve the fixed portion with no seconds guaranteed. Require guests to rsvp and include their selection of entree by checking the box of their entree choice and provide the size of the serving portion along with it such as:

    Orange Roughy 6 ounces
    Chicken one thigh and one leg
    meat loaf 7 ounces

    two tablespoons of mixed vegetables

    The above identifies the size and the item so there are no misunderstandings.

    Wait 10 minutes between serving the salad and the entree then 15 minutes before serving the dessert. I understand that this gives the brain time to recognize that the belly is full and so packing more into it won’t be priority one!

    Also don’t add in extra amounts. If the persons did not RSVP, then direct them to the bar to fill up on cocktail cherries and drinks.. Or if you are weak kneed, give them 5 bucks and send them to burger king.

    Did I do good?

    • Avatar
      Christy Cook says:

      Hi Vito,

      I love the idea about timing the meal accordingly. I think it’s so important that you suggested it and it’s a concept that’s often overlooked. I bet everyone has been to a catered event or a restaurant and I think most would say they left eating too much. That moment of the perfect balance of satisfaction can be elusive and timing is an important aspect to achieve the balance. Thanks for the suggestion!

      I would consider attempting to balance the people without RSVP’s because customer service is important. And so is humor!

      Thanks Vito!

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    I liked that you said that one thing to consider when you are hiring a catering company for your event is to discuss with them what you would like to happen when food is running low. I have been thinking about having a catering company provide food for my wedding but I have been worried that we would end up running out of food in the middle of the celebration. I would be sure to discuss with the catering beforehand to make sure that extra food is provided in case of an emergency.


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