Mindless Wasting II

I just finished reading Cornell food psychologist Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating. While the interesting book examines how Americans unwittingly eat more than we think we do, it provides plenty of fodder for wasted food discussion.

For instance, Wansink examines portion size at restaurants. American obesity can be partly blamed on gigantic servings that are now normal at restaurants, and waste often accompanies overeating. Wansink’s experiments show that cultural clues more than hunger determine the amount we eat. Usually, we decide what portion of a dish is socially acceptable to consume. If a diner determines that, say, eating three-fourths of the plate is appropriate, they’re likely to do so no matter how big the plate. And as Wansink points out, today’s dinner plates dwarf those from earlier eras.

Combine that with the fact that more than half of restaurant patrons don’t take home leftovers and you have increased waste. For example, if the an entree from, say, the 1980s had 1000 calories and a diner ate three-fourths, 250 calories were wasted if they didn’t take home leftovers. Now imagine the same scenario with a sensible-sounding entree like Chili’s Cajun Chicken Pasta, which has 1500 calories exactly, and you’d have 375 calories wasted.

If you consider the real monster of the menu, the 2020-calorie Fajita Steak Quesadilla with guacamole, you’re looking at 505 calories squandered.

One of Wansink’s solutions for mindless eating–serving less–works for waste, too. As Wansink writes:

In most of our studies, people can eat 20 percent less without noticing it. If they eat 30 percent less, they realize it, but 20 percent is still under the radar screen.

That means professional and household chefs can cut waste by dishing out 20 percent less than you think people may want. Few will notice the difference and it means less plate waste. This would work especially well at home, where we control portions and can easily take more if we’re still hungry. I know I wouldn’t have noticed the difference had I been served 20 percent less peas when I was a kid. Had I noticed, I sure wouldn’t have minded!  

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