Reducing Food Waste

No wasted food at your event… Please!

Yes, that must be your ambition. With one third of all food produced being lost or wasted, while people around the world are going hungry, and  the climate impact of food waste, having large volumes of food waste is a crime. 

We’ve all seen beautifully presented yet hardly touched buffets and banquets at conferences and hotels. Or boxes of bread rolls, trays of fruit and vegetables and containers or pre-chopped ingredients left on the ground after a food stall has pulled out of a festival.

Food waste at events includes kitchen prep scraps, prepared food that is un-served, unwrapped, uneaten, and unsold, and of course plate scraps.  

To prevent mountains of served but uneaten food, or unhappy food traders leaving the event with stock unsold, you need to conduct a fine balancing act between variety and volume – accurately predicting the right type and amount of food to result in little wastage.

Event’s role in the food waste crisis

We have a dual role to play in contributing to the global food waste challenge. 

First is to do all that is possible to reduce food waste and to salvage unused food for good. 

The other important role is to use events as a platform to promote the issue of food waste and communicate how our stakeholders can play a part in solving it – event attendees, our supply chain, the venues that host us, caterers and food vendors and other stakeholders such as local government, the wider event industry and media.

You would do well to ensure that your concern for this major international issue is reflected in the food service at your event. Find food waste programmes.

And here are some beautiful examples

DGTL worked with The Food Lineup and Instock, to design a circular food system for the festival. Instead of basing their menu on what visitors want to eat, they created a menu based on food surplus waste. By using “imperfect food” from local suppliers they will be closing local food loops. The same was done at Feeding the 5000, where they take food that would have otherwise been wasted, and feed 5000 people with it. It’s powered by the community including Feedback.


In 2016 Øya Festival in Norway’s environmental theme was food waste. They encouraged the chefs at the festival to promote food waste in different ways – which resulted in one restaurant serving food made mainly from ‘surplus foods’ that were to be thrown away from grocery stores. In a unique partnering, their coffee vendor coupled up with a soap maker, producing soap out of coffee grounds!

Causes of food waste at events

Food waste at events can occur through mishandling of food, over-supply or under-eating. 

Attendees may also bring their own food, and discard it in favour of the food vendors!

Food waste can occur because of a deliberate overstatement of the likely number of attendees by the event organiser, or they might simply over-estimate attendance. This can then lead to over-catering, too many food stallholders being booked, or stallholders over-stocking. 

Weather can play a role also – if the wrong foods are on offer for the weather, or if bad weather causes attendance to be lower than anticipated.

People could also just not be hungry (e.g. conferences where by day two everyone is full, not doing any exercise and not interested in eating), or because the wrong food has been served at the wrong time, not being right for the event type and timing.

What can events and venues do?

  • Serve less food
    Don’t provide huge buffets of food that you know will just be wasted. 
  • The right amount
    Accurately estimate the volume required, considering the number of attendees, the event type and timing of activities or breaks
  • Communicate
    Be honest with caterers and food vendors so they can order accurate stock levels.
  • Other sources?
    Anticipate if attendees might bring their own food, or if there are nearby food outlets, and include that in your calculations. Communicate to your food vendors.
  • Inform attendees
    Pre-promote what food will be available and at what price.

Catered Events

Consider the following when planning numbers:

  • Plan for three hors d’oeuvre per person.
  • Consider the event activities (sitting or active) and provide the right type of food to keep your attendees going, rather than send them to sleep.
  • Ask for dietary requirements in advance to reduce wastage and satisfy attendees.
  • Consider if any attendees might scoot out during breaks either for meetings to try out a neighbouring exotic street market while they happen to be in the city of a couple of days. 
  • For conferences, as a general rule, cater for about 60% of your attendees eating.
  • Consider attrition or uneven attendance numbers. Is it likely some attendees may dwindle as the conference goes on, only turn up at the beginning or end of the conference, or when particularly popular activities will be on? Cater accordingly.
  • Use smaller serving bowls.
  • Don’t pre-plate or pre-pour in advance.  
  • Reduce garnishes and avoid food-based décor.
  • Avoid pre-packaged food where portion sizes may be too large, or ‘packs’ of food where delegates may only decide to eat some of the options. Allow them to choose. 
  • Put signs on the buffet to inform participants of your focus on preventing food waste. 

Events with food stalls

Consider the following when planning numbers:

  • Number of attendees and number of days.
  • Number of meals per day per attendee.
  • Meal service hours (event operating times and likely eating times).
  • Site layout and pedestrian routes for attendees.
  • Average service time per meal for each vendor’s menu items to ensure you have acceptable waiting times for customers.
  • Identification of ‘slow’ areas where you are providing a food vendor as a convenient service, rather than a high turnover opportunity – the pitch fee should reflect this. 
  • Identification of high turnover food types versus more specialist or novelty options. 
  • Total turnover and profitability potential per vendor considering the pitch fees charged.