6 Ways to Reduce Food Waste at a Wedding

June 16, 2016

A wedding is a lot of things—for many, a big ol' celebration; a spiritual rite; the fanciest dinner party they'll ever throw. Regardless of what takes precedence in your mind, there will probably be a goodly number of people there fêting you, and you are probably planning on feeding them.

The first challenge of planning a meal for 20 or 50 or 200 is what to feed them, and how to make sure it's all warm when it lands on the table. But then there's the other end of it. The food doesn't all just disappear when the meal is over and the dancing begins.

"Catering—it's performance art, right?" said Mary Cleaver, founder of Cleaver Co., a New York-based restaurant and catering group. "You put together all these components for a given period of time, and then everything has to go away." At the end of the night, "everything" is the leftover food—which hopefully doesn't turn into food waste. (It might be your big day, but food waste is a big deal.)

"It's important to consider the entire cycle," Mary said. "What goes in to the event will come out on the other end." This might mean feeding the caterers or sending boxes home with your guests or, if possible, donating food to a shelter. Most of the folks who answered our Twitter query did the former:

If these options seem daunting, fear not: A good caterer will know how to handle and minimize waste (after all, they do this every day, and many chefs, by nature of their jobs, are already scrap savvy)—and there are questions you can ask a company to vet their preparedness. In the end, said Mary, "You just have to do the best you can. That's the mindset you have to have."

But no matter what size your wedding is, or what your budget is, or who's catering, or if you're cooking all the food down to the wedding cake yourself, there are a few things anyone can do to help manage leftover food:

1. Take it into consideration when choosing a caterer (and even a venue).

Managing scraps and food waste is already a priority for many caterers (and, though this paints with a broad stroke, caterers—especially smaller, more specialized companies—are more likely to have a plan for dealing with food waste than the catering arms of big hotels). Have a conversation about your expectations for how any scraps and other waste will be handled, and make sure that your caterers do indeed have a plan.

For Mary's catering team at Cleaver Co., the plan is this: If the client wants the food, they'll package and leave it. The order goes like this: "client, then staff, then organizations that will take it, then compost" for anything (like plate scraps) that can't be salvaged.

Here are a few questions to ask when hiring a caterer:

  • What will happen to any food left on plates? Untouched leftovers of food that was served? Food that was not even served during the evening?
  • Is there a possibility of donating any food to a local shelter or kitchen? Is there one you already have a relationship with?
  • What kind of plates/trays/serveware will you use? (Is it possible for them to be reusable?)

2. If possible, serve with real— rather than "compostable" or "biodegradable"—plates and silverware.

Alas, "compostable" and "biodegradable" flatware is convenient, but it isn't everything it says it is: Many products marked as such only break down under the high heat of industrial compost facilities (but not in your personal compost heap). If you do go with biodegradable flatware, you can learn more about different kinds here. And as far as compostable plates, Mary tries to use those made from palm leaves, like these ones.

Get plates and silverware through a rental company (or ask your catering team—they may have existing relationships they can connect you with), or take to your nearest thrift store and embrace the mismatched look. (For the record, it's a look we love.)

3. Seek to compost—but be ready to do the heavy-lifting yourself.

It would be easy to advise to put out compost bins at the event—and depending on where you live or where your wedding is being held (in San Francisco, for example, municipal compost has been around for years), it may indeed be easy.

But elsewhere (like New York, for example), there isn't necessarily an easy answer: While your caterer or venue may be able to connect you with a composting service (and, in some cases, will take all the waste away with them, as Cleaver Co. does), it's also possible that you may need to cart the compost yourself.

4. Don't serve a ton of food.

Which isn't to say you should underfeed your wedding guests. But you may not need an endlessly flowing bounty, either. Realistically, how much will your guests eat? "The main concept in waste control is not to create it in the first place," Mary said. "We try to plan menus with our clients that won't be excessive [...] so we're not sending too much food—we're not creating the waste to begin with."

5. And choose a serving option other than buffet-style.

Buffet trays aren't static; the catering staff comes out to refill them and keep them looking fresh throughout the dinner. (As a result, buffets are often more expensive!) Instead, opt for plated (which can run on the expensive side, due to the need for additional servers, but not necessarily) or family-style serving—like our Creative Director Kristen Miglore did at her wedding.

6. Make it an option to send food home with your guests.

Set out (recyclable!) takeaway boxes so that your guests can pack themselves the dinner's leftovers—some of them will be traveling later, and someone, inevitably, will return to their hotel room in desperate need of a midnight snack. And feed your catering and event staff!

How did you think about food waste in planning your own wedding (or other large event)? Share any tips you have in the comments.

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tamater S. June 19, 2016
I really like the route Food 52 is going lately. Keep this up, and you'll leave the other food forums in the dust!
ktr June 16, 2016
We packed up all the leftover food after our wedding and then ate some of it the next day and froze the rest.