Food waste — when edible items go uneaten, including "plate waste" in retail establishments such as restaurants and cafeterias — is an increasingly important issue in food security. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, 31 percent of food in the U.S. is "lost" at the retail and consumer levels, corresponding to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. As structures and systems evolve to reduce this percentage, so do discussions about what we can do to reduce food waste at schools, in retail locations such as restaurants and supermarkets, and at home.
There are many reasons for plate waste. If kids don't like the taste of a food, they won't eat it. Food also is thrown away if lunch is served when students aren't hungry, if lunch periods are too short or if students rush through their meals in order to start recess. Peer pressure also may discourage some kids from trying new foods or admitting that they like foods their friends may not like. Some schools measure plate waste and use this information to adjust their menus, recipes and the lunchroom environment, improving their ability to provide tasty and nutritious meals to their students.
Parents: Get Involved
Reducing plate waste at school can lower the school district's costs and boost your child's nutrition.
- Take a look at your school's menus. Many schools post menus online or distribute them in parent newsletters. Review food options and discuss them with your child, asking which items your child likes.
- Encourage your child to try not only new foods, but old foods in new ways. Maybe your child has never tasted mango or sweet potato, or perhaps your child doesn't enjoy steamed broccoli. Describe the taste and texture of new foods to reduce possible anxiety. Discuss the crunch of raw broccoli after dipping it into low-fat ranch dressing, for example.
- Find out what they ate. After school, ask your children what they ate, what they liked and what they didn't like. Ask if they had enough time to eat. When appropriate, share this feedback with your school's nutrition team or principal.
- Make trying new foods a family activity. Exposing your children to new foods at home will help them accept unfamiliar foods elsewhere.
Reduce Plate Waste at Home
Reducing plate waste at home is a good way to save money and boost kids' nutrition as well. Try serving meals family-style — allowing your children to select foods they want in appropriate portions. If there are leftovers, store them safely in the refrigerator or freezer to enjoy later.
Teach your children that good nutrition can help them grow and do well in school and sports. Kids will copy their parents, so show them that you enjoy good nutrition and new foods.
Some of the same questions that pertain to your kid's school lunchroom experience can be applied to eating away from the home. Offering kids the opportunity to try foods while dining out is a great time to try foods you don't usually make at home.
Using the same strategies registered dietitian nutritionists suggest for portion control, such as splitting meals or having the server box up half the meal before it's served, can help reduce food waste as well.