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Should We Bring Back The Buffet?

Lavish, all-you-can-eat spreads are often a key feature of parties, weddings, hotel stays and conferences. For almost two years now, however, barely a buffet has been served as COVID-19 put mass catering on pause. But as we start to make plans to resume a new normality, now is a good time to look at the uncomfortable truths about buffet meals, and to ask whether we can do the buffet in a better way in the post-pandemic world.


Hard truth #1: Buffets are a big source of waste

People don’t finish their food

Buffets generate a disproportionate amount of food waste from catering; in Germany, for example, buffet waste accounts for 45% of all food wasted in the hospitality sector, followed by plate waste (30%), preparation waste (20%), then storage losses (5%). Studies in buffets in university canteens and hotels have concluded that customers eat around only half of the food they put on their plates.1 It seems that when there are no additional costs to consider, there’s nothing to stop us from helping ourselves to more than we need.

Caterers cook too much

But customers aren’t the only ones to blame: studies confirm that over-stockpiling on the part of caterers is a major cause of buffet food waste, accounting for over two-thirds in some cases.1  Whether a hotel or a wedding venue, buffet hosts are anxious to give the impression of hospitality and lavish excess; no one wants a poor review complaining that the food options were limited. It can also be difficult for venues to accurately predict the number of guests that will turn up, especially if there are other local dining options available.  

Policies make it hard to redistribute surplus food

And then there’s the impact of local and national policies that limit the ability of caterers to redistribute surplus food, for instance to charities. Many countries have strict hygiene rules that prevent food left out at buffets from being used again or donated to charities. This means most buffet waste is ultimately thrown away and sent to landfills, where it generates greenhouse gases as it rots. 

All this food waste adds up: hotels, restaurants and the catering sector are responsible for an estimated 14% (12 million tonnes) of the total food wasted in the European Union each year.2 'Producing food that is ultimately never eaten is a tremendous waste of resources, and a source of carbon emissions. A better management of food production to minimise waste could help reduce serious environmental problems, such as increasing scarcity of water resources, climate change and destruction of natural habitats for agriculture,' says Dr Christian Reynolds, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London. 

Read How Do Food Businesses Manage Food Waste?

Hard truth #2: Buffets lead to over-indulgence

Buffets are also problematic from a health perspective. They can contribute to overconsumption and obesity – which increases the risk of many serious diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. We are genetically programmed to seek out energy-dense foods, but we didn’t evolve in an environment where these were available in high abundance all year round. Many studies have found that increasing variety within a meal (even just by adding condiments) causes us to eat more – by up to a third, according to some studies.3 This could be because the wide variety in tastes, colours, and textures causes a delay in our brain registering we’ve had enough.

Hard truth #3: Buffets pose risks of foodborne illnesses 

The other health risk of buffets is contamination. Even before COVID-19, buffet meals posed significant hygiene risks. “The open nature of food buffets, the use of shared utensils and serving dishes, and the fact that dishes are often served outside temperature-controlled conditions means they can pose significant hygiene and foodborne illness issues,” says Dr Rachel Ward, Scientific Policy Director at the Institute of Food Science & Technology. With so many (often unwashed!) hands handling the same utensils and the potential for one person’s sneeze to infect a communal dish, buffets are ready environments for cross-contamination. In a post-COVID era, will we really want to go back to choosing to ignore these risks? 

Hard truth #4: Buffets make us value our food less 

The often-excessive displays of abundance at buffets may cause us to value our food less and to forget the resources and labour used to produce it. “Besides making us value our food less, in most cases, buffets offer lower-quality food to stay within a very low price range. This includes food with a lower quality of taste, food that is not produced sustainably, and food whose producers are not paid a fair amount for their work,” says Valentina Gritti, Global Community and Project Manager for the Slow Food Youth Network. 

Can we bring back a better buffet?

So, as we emerge into a new normal, can we bring back the buffet in a better way? Happily, evidence from across the world suggests that with a few simple changes, we can make buffets less wasteful, more hygienic and even a means to help people engage with healthy, sustainable and ethical food. 

Solution #1: Cutting down on waste 

The role of technology

Since most food wasted at buffets is caused by over-display, technology could help to more accurately predict how much is actually needed for a certain amount of people. Software solutions such as Winnow apply machine learning to data from smart bins and electronic scales, tracking food waste over time. One group of German hotels found that such software reduced their food waste by 42.7% - 84.3%, potentially saving 9000 EUR a year for each kitchen.4 Less high-tech approaches include producing smaller portions after peak times, serving less popular buffet items as ‘made to order’, and offering small sample plates for guests to try unfamiliar dishes before committing to a whole portion.

Use smaller plates and other approaches

Many studies have also shown that using smaller plates at buffets causes people to serve themselves less. A field study of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets found people ate 45% more food and wasted 135% more when they selected a large plate compared to a small one.5 A separate study found that reducing plate size by 3 cm caused plate waste to drop by nearly 20%.6 It’s thought that portion sizes appear larger on smaller plates, so people believe they have eaten more. Using signs to encourage people to make multiple trips to the buffet (rather than take too much at once) has also been found to reduce plate waste by up to a fifth whilst keeping customers’ satisfaction constant.6 Other approaches include asking parents to serve their children (since children typically waste more), using decorative screens to reduce the number of buffet stations on show (reducing the perception of abundance), or charging customers extra for any food they leave on their plates. 

Solution #2: Redistributing excess food

Unavoidable food waste from buffets needn’t go straight to landfill. Closer coordination between catering providers, community groups and charities could redistribute surplus food before it becomes unsafe, for instance, via food-sharing apps or community fridges. Composting is also an option; many large hotels use on-site composters to turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil fertiliser. Policy changes that could help tackle the waste problem include relaxing restrictions on donating surplus food, mandating that food waste be collected separately, and grant schemes for composting facilities and food-sharing hubs. 

Surplus food can also be the star of the buffet itself. The Real Junk Food Project provides an events catering service based solely on redistributed (but perfectly edible) food that would otherwise go to waste, for instance, from supermarkets, catering suppliers and restaurants. “We don’t buy any ingredients at all: every buffet we cook is made entirely of surplus food, even the seasoning. Our chefs have to be very imaginative, and this results in really creative dishes. Feedback from our guests is overwhelmingly positive, and in 2020 alone, we intercepted 1585 tonnes of surplus food just from our local area,” says Emma Buckle, Catering Coordinator for The Real Junk Food Project in Leeds.

Solution #3: Minimising germs

“The key to good food hygiene risk management is applying the 4 C’s effectively at all times - cleaning, cooking, chilling and cross-contamination– with checks and measures to ensure these are followed consistently at all times,” says Dr Ward. Food items should be displayed in hot or cold units outside the temperature danger zone (5°C to 60°C). Ideally, in these COVID times, self-serving options should be minimised, with staff serving customers instead. Even if shared utensils are used, with hand sanitiser now ubiquitous, it shouldn’t be too much effort for customers to clean their hands before serving themselves. For both staff and customers, it is particularly important to wash hands when handling food, cutlery, money, and high-contact surfaces (such as door handles). Dr Ward suggests that food should be covered before serving and always placed behind a sneeze guard. Customers should also be encouraged to use clean plates, cutlery and napkins when they revisit the buffet for refills.

Solution #4: Sourcing sustainable and fairly produced ingredients 

According to Valentina Gritti from the Slow Food Youth Network, buffets could be a vehicle for positive change within food systems if the ingredients are sustainably and fairly produced and inspire customers to change their shopping habits for the better. Buffets could even become an opportunity for customers to learn more about nutrition and where our food comes from. Customers could try new healthy foods that they wouldn’t order straight off an a-la-carte menu because they would be afraid they wouldn’t like them. 

Perhaps, then, the best place to start if we want to bring back better buffets is to decouple them from the idea of abundance and make them about quality, sustainability, and fairness. 

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