Reducing food waste at feasts
Reducing waste at feasts helps in two aspects of cooking management.
1) reducing food wastage means a reduction in expenses, meaning that the feast can be cheaper (or remain in budget) as not as much food is purchased
2) reduces how much food needs to be thrown away.
So there’s a few things involved in reducing the food waste at a feast.
It comes down to preparation and planning (as so much of cooking does).
How does food waste happen?
- The numbers are a unknown (normally due to on the door tickets being sold) and so food is prepared for over catering rather than under catering just in case.
- How much food people can eat is an unknown, resulting in over-catering.
- Each dish or course is prepared as if it’s the only thing that people will be eating, without the other courses being taken into consideration.
- There are several “unknown” dishes that people are reluctant to eat. (Jellied eel for instance)
- Kitchen mistakes result in burnt or undercooked food, which people don’t eat.
- The overall plan is not widely shared which can result in
- People fill up on cheap carbs in the beginning and don’t eat later dishes
- Servers put shared platters in the wrong spots, resulting in some people not getting enough to eat, but food is sent back to the kitchen.
- Ingredients get forgotten or misplaced, resulting in dishes not being able to be sent out.
So, knowing how food waste can occur, we can look in more detail about the steps required to minimise the potential for food waste.
Getting accurate numbers for the event
Knowing how many people you are feeding is essential to getting the food quantities right. Having strict numbers that you’re catering to means that you aren’t over catering with the expectation that people will unexpectedly show up.
So some steps that can be taken to help with this are:
1) Close numbers a week before the event and before the majority of the shopping is purchased for.
2) Pre booked tickets are less likely to result in no shows – as there is a financial incentive for people to show up (and at least you aren’t out of pocket if people do no show)
How much can people eat
A rough guideline is that 200g of protein per person will feed them. (Anne de Tournai has written an excellent guide for this here) plus additional carbs ensures that everyone goes away feeling full, without breaking the budget (protein being one of the biggest costs of running a feast)
A common mistake that can result in over-catering is that people will make each dish as if that is the only thing that people will eat, and then make 10+ dishes.
Creating a pre-tasting event, where each dish is cooked to quantity and fed to the feast crew can help find various issues such as
- which dishes go well together
- dishes that are unexpectedly fiddly or time-consuming (such as individual pastries)
- how much food will people actually eat and which dishes will be the most popular
A good rule of thumb is to make plenty of dishes that are “known” or are similar to modern palates, particularly if the target market for the feast haven’t attended a lot of feasts, and then make “taster” dishes for dishes that are a little more out there (such as jellied meats, or anything involving entrails)
Planning and Preparation
Cooking during the event itself is time consuming and involves a lot that can go wrong. I have never attended or cooked at a feast that didn’t have at least one dish go wrong.
Doing a pre-inspection of the kitchen facilities and checking what they have available. Look for;
- how well the oven and stove work (how many pots, pans and trays can you have on the go at any one time)
- How many power-points are available
- is there enough bench space, or space to put a table in the middle for additional bench space
- how much fridge space is available
- how big is the sink (how much washing up can you do)
This should get you an idea about what you can do on the night and what will need to be pre-cooked or pre-prepared.
Carefully checking to ensure that all ingredients are accounted for before arriving on site helps avoid last minute panics and substitutions being required, which can go wrong.
Keeping to a single culture and time period for the feast, ensures that the food will go together well and will use similar ingredients, ensuring that you don’t need to buy a large packet of something that you will only use in one dish for instance.
Kitchen rushing, or equipment that doesn’t work quite right can easily result in food being burnt or undercooked, both of which will result in food wastage. Knowing how long the oven will take to cook various foods, and checking on the food regularly to ensure that it’s cooked, without being burnt is essential.
Communication with the feast attendees, letting them know how many courses they can expect, and what is in each dish helps set the expectation and people can then self manage themselves as well when it comes to how much food they serve themselves in each course. They can also tell if there’s an ingredient that they can’t or won’t eat, ensuring that food isn’t bitten into before they realise that they won’t eat it.
Communication between the kitchen and front of staff is also important. Particularly when it comes to shared platter feasts (which are a good compromise between the amount of staff and platters required for individual platting and the disorganisation of people coming up to a buffet style feast), ensuring that the servers know how many people the platters are supposed to feed and that the platters are positioned so that everyone is able to access them will also reduce food waste.
What to do if food waste happens regardless?
For unopened food packages (such as rice, oil, beans, or canned food), there are charities such as Second Bite that can take these foods and use them to feed people in need. (You can also check with your local churches or homeless shelters what they’ll accept).
Some charities will not accept pre-cooked food, as they can’t guarantee the hygiene and safety standards used to cook and store the food.
Bring zip lock bags or plastic tupper-ware containers (can be purchased quite cheaply at discount and bulk stores), label carefully with the date and what the meal is, and pass out to helpers, collegians, and other members. Some foods can be frozen, to be eaten by individuals at a later date.
See if anyone has chickens, dogs or composting and what foods would be acceptable for those.
Vegetable peels and meat bones can be used to create a delicious stock.
Featured image shows half of the precook prepared for the 14th century village for the 2016 St Ives Medieval Fair.