Waste not, want not: Strategies for minimising food waste in school kitchens

School lunches are a quintessential part of the school day and are especially vital for children facing food insecurity at home. With the economic downturn set to worsen in the UK, the school lunch will become even more critical as a guaranteed source of nutritious, filling food.

And yet, the education sector accounts for about 13% of non-domestic food waste in England, with an annual wastage of about 123,000 tons. Managing food waste at schools is essential for the environment and the preservation of resources, as well as to ensure that food reaches the hungry mouths that need it.

Luckily, if students and school staff work together, this does not have to be an issue! Let us take a look at strategies for minimising food waste in schools:

1. Reduce portion sizes

Quite often, school meal portions are too large, especially for younger children. Consider reducing portion sizes and then having the option for a second helping for those who truly want it. In this context, it may help to offer individually portioned meal options wherever possible, such as sandwiches, salads, pieces of fruit or tubs of yoghurt. For hot meals that are cooked in bulk, educate your kitchen staff on how to portion items out to each individual plate.

2. Set up live kitchens

Live kitchens can help schools reduce food waste by preparing meals on demand, which means that the chefs cook meals according to the number of students who want to eat. This approach allows schools to minimise food waste, as the kitchen only prepares what is needed.

Moreover, chefs can also tailor the meal to the individual preferences and dietary requirements of each student, reducing the likelihood of food waste due to uneaten meals. Additionally, live kitchens can offer fresh and nutritious meals to students, which can improve their overall health and wellbeing.

3. Choose familiar foods

It is essential to provide students with familiar foods that they are accustomed to, as they are more likely to eat them than unfamiliar foods. Providing familiar foods also reduces the risk of food waste since students are more likely to finish their meals.

Schools should consider offering a variety of options within familiar food categories to give students choice and variety. However, they should also introduce new foods to encourage healthy eating habits and broaden students’ food knowledge. Educating students about new menu items in advance can help prepare them to try new foods.

4. Extend the lunch hour

Often, children leave food behind on their plates because they do not have enough time to finish everything before class resumes. Consider lengthening the lunch hour so the students have enough time to eat – even the ones who come in late. This is good for their digestion and also helps reduce wastage.

5. Do not forget about taste

Taste is an essential factor in determining whether students will eat their meals. Schools should work with their kitchen staff to create tasty and healthy meal options that appeal to students’ palates. Providing vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free options can cater to different diets and ensure that all students can enjoy their meals.

Additionally, incorporating herbs and spices can enhance the flavour of meals and make them more appealing to students. Schools can also consider involving students in the menu planning process to get feedback on their preferences and incorporate their ideas into meal choices.

6. Set up lunchtime committees

A lot of food gets wasted every day because the food is not to the students’ liking. Have a lunch committee where children can share their meal preferences in advance so that the kitchen staff can know how much of each meal option to cook. To facilitate this, decide on a weekly menu in advance and share it with the children so they know what to pick.

7. Educate students about food waste

Children who understand where food comes from and what happens to it after it is discarded will develop a natural interest in wasting as little food as possible. Schools can partner with conservation charities to take students on field trips to landfills or incinerators to see how most waste is treated.

On the other hand, field trips to farms will show children where their food is coming from and thus help them develop an appreciation for the hard work that goes into food production. In addition, teaching children in school about the role of food in history and culture will help them appreciate different eating habits and thus be more conscious about what they are putting on their plates.

8. Involve the students in the process

School students can be encouraged to help tackle food waste by sharing ideas on what they want on the menu or create ways to dispose of waste. For instance, student volunteers could pack up uneaten portions of food and distribute them to a food charity.

They could also run a “leftovers” table where each child places uneaten portions from their lunch, to be taken by anyone else who feels hungry. Or, they could present ideas on creative ways to use up leftover ingredients, such as converting vegetables into stews/soups or pieces of fruit into fruit smoothies.

9. Use eco-friendly plates and cutlery

Plastic items used during school lunchtimes contribute to landfill. Instead, use plates, cups and cutlery made from biodegradable items and have a clearly labelled compost bin where students can place them after the meal.

10. Design a more student-friendly dining area

Crowded, messy dining areas are also a factor that drive students to rush through their meals. Instead, space chairs and tables out more (moving some tables outside for those who may want to eat outdoors) and add little touches to create a more welcoming dining room, such as student art or colourful posters. In addition, have a separate area with grab-and-go meal options for students who may have somewhere else to be.

Over to you

In conclusion, solving the food waste problem in school kitchens is fairly doable if students, kitchen staff and school governing bodies all collaborate to set and execute. Moreover, with reduced food waste, the average cost of a school lunch can come down by as much as 22 pence, which means that schools also have a financial incentive to cut down on waste.

Food shortage is a real and pressing problem in the UK, and by proactively addressing it in schools, we can ensure that those in need of food always have it and that we raise socially conscious citizens who will do their bit to build a more sustainable future.

Are you in search of an effective food waste management solution for your school? Look no further than Waste2ES systems! Our cutting-edge technology can streamline food waste processing systems and potentially decrease costs. For further information, please contact us.

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