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Catering is an essential service for countless companies, organizations and private events, but with that comes environmental and social impacts. Thankfully, there are many opportunities to improve the sustainability of your catering services, whether it be how the food is sourced, prepared, transported or served. This article covers the how-to’s of sustainable catering for business owners looking to green their operations.

Getting Started

Making your catering services more sustainable may seem like a daunting task and it’s okay to be unsure of where to start. Here are 7 sustainable initiatives you can use to make your company more eco-friendly:

  • Reduce Food Waste
  • Source Locally From Sustainable Suppliers
  • Use Eco-Friendly Tableware
  • Reduce Water Waste
  • Offer Meatless Food Options
  • Make Your Kitchen Sustainable
  • Switch to Electric or Sustainable Fuel

Reduce Food Waste

Food waste is a huge emitter of methane, a planet-warming greenhouse gas, and takes up a large portion of municipal landfills. It’s extremely important to get an accurate estimate on the amount of people you will be serving at each event as this will avoid unnecessary leftovers. Serving smaller portions can prevent food waste too.

Although it may seem obvious, properly storing and refrigerating food is extremely important when it comes to preventing food waste. Make sure your refrigeration system is working properly and has an emergency power source. Providing recyclable to-go boxes and encouraging customers to take home leftovers is another effective way to reduce waste.

Partnering with local food rescue organizations is a great way to donate your surplus food to those in need in the community. Replate and Too Good to Go are two examples of digital food rescue programs that connect food donors with nonprofits seeking food donations. As for local food rescue programs, the EPA offers a fantastic guide that your company can use to find food banks and community centers near your business.

While non-perishable food can be donated to any of these food donation programs, perishable food is trickier to donate, however there are places that will accept them if they haven’t spoiled and are packaged properly.

Adding a compost system to your kitchen is a great way to turn foods unfit for donation and spoiled leftovers into nutrient-rich soil. This soil can then be donated to local farms or community gardens, or it can be used in your own company garden. Vertical gardens in particular are great for catering companies that have limited space but want to grow their own produce onsite. Hanging gardens are another space-efficient type of culinary garden as they utilize unused space and need minimal water to thrive.

Source Locally From Sustainable Suppliers

Choosing the right ingredients is key to the success of your catering services. Not just to appease people’s taste palettes but to support local businesses and the surrounding community.  Partner with local farms and markets to ensure your company is using only the freshest, in-season food and lowering transport emissions in the process.

This is not only beneficial to the environment. It also gives your company an opportunity to reflect the uniqueness and culture of your community in the foods you serve, as well as establish a supporting relationship with your community.

Sourcing ingredients directly from local farms also allows for seasonal dishes, which can add appeal to your menu and encourage customers to choose you over competing businesses. If sourcing locally isn’t a viable option for your area, then make sure to choose food distribution companies who support small farms and offer locally sourced options. When applicable, buy food in bulk to cut down on transportation.

Use Eco-Friendly Tableware

Another significant environmental impact of catering is the massive amount of single-use waste, primarily from tableware. The single best way to avoid this is by switching to reusable plastic or ceramic bowls, plates and cups, and metal silverware. Ditch throw-away napkins and opt for linen instead.

For events with existing kitchens, such as offices or residences, a cheaper “bring your own tableware” option can be encouraged, however this option is only practical for small group events. Otherwise, outsourcing your dirty tableware to a dishwashing service provider is the most practical option for handling dirty tableware in bulk.

If investing in reusable tableware isn’t an option for your company, there are plenty of ways to make single-use tableware more eco-friendly. Depending on what materials your local collection facility accepts, plastic tableware can be rinsed and recycled. There are also a variety of eco-friendly tableware products on the market today that are compostable and made from recycled content. Greenstaurant and Green Paper Products sell such eco-friendly food service products in bulk. If your company currently uses styrofoam tableware, it should be your number one priority to switch to one of the aforementioned sustainable materials.

Reduce Water Waste

Eliminate the need to buy individually packaged plastic water bottles by providing water in bulk for event attendees. You can even encourage attendees to bring their own water bottles to events to reduce the need for single use plastics. Investing in reusable cups that can be collected at the end of events and washed for future use is another option.

Using outside dishwashing services as mentioned previously is not only practical but a better means of conserving water as these companies have extremely efficient dishwashers and clean dishes in bulk. AutoChlor is one of the most widespread dishwashing service providers, with locations in nearly every U.S. state and the ability to clean both tableware and linens.

Water could also be wasted when cooking and preparing food for events. Low flow faucets should be installed along with foot pedals to turn faucets on. Additionally, employees should be educated on the best water saving practices and how to conserve water when working in the kitchen. A few green habits to note: Remembering to turn off faucets when not in use; Reusing water for cleaning purposes; Using the refrigerator to thaw foods as opposed to using running water.

Catering equipment such as steamers and ice machines can also be the cause of wasted water, which is why it’s important to inspect them routinely and keep maintenance up to date. Although buying new equipment can be expensive, having high quality equipment can not only reduce water and food waste, it yields better quality food with greater efficiency.

Offer Meatless Food Options

The meat packing industry is one of the leading contributors to climate change due to the enormous amount of emissions it produces. Catering services should be crafting their menus with this fact in mind. A great place to start would be organizing an employee meeting to brainstorm new plant-based menu options. If your current food distributor cannot meet the needs of your new menu, look into switching to a different distributor with a more diverse inventory or considering partnering with multiple local suppliers to diversify your options.

Foods such as quinoa, tofu, chickpeas and many types of beans can provide excellent meat replacements while maintaining the same nutritional value, and these ingredients can be used to create unique menu items that can add some flare to your services. Plant-based meat replacements that look and taste like meat are also becoming more available. Brands such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and MorningStar Farms all produce reasonably priced meat alternatives that can easily be incorporated into your new menu.

For meals that have to have the real thing, locally sourced meat can be a better option due to its reduced transport emissions and healthier quality compared to mass factory-produced meat.

Although still a source of emissions, white meat such as chicken generates less emissions than red meat, so even simply reducing the amount of red meat in your menu can be an effective strategy to make your company greener.

Make Your Kitchen Sustainable

The kitchen is where most of your company’s energy is being used, so it is imperative to take the necessary steps to increase energy efficiency. Kitchen lighting should be upgraded to LEDs and all equipment should be up to date on maintenance. Investing in EnergyStar certified appliances is another step your business could take to green your kitchen as these are the top energy-saving products on the market today. EnergyStar also provides guidelines on energy efficiency  for businesses and homeowners, and you can visit their website for more resources and calculators to get your business on the right track.

A more ambitious feat, solar, wind and geothermal energy sources are all great renewable options to power your kitchen, depending on the availability in your region. You can also talk to your utility providers to see if you can source some or all of your electricity needs from green, clean energy.

Employee habits also play a major role in energy conservation, and if they aren’t working with sustainability in mind, it will be difficult to make any significant progress. Hold a meeting with your staff to teach them best resource-saving practices such as:

  • Ensuring lights, faucets, appliances, etc. are turned off when not in use
  • Closing freezers and refrigerators immediately after use
  • Preparing ingredients in advance
  • When appropriate, using the same cookware for multiple dishes
  • Cooking food in bulk (Note: Keep food waste in mind)
  • When appropriate, reusing water for other purposes like cleaning

Educating employees on best green practices in the kitchen not only helps the environment, but improves your operational efficiency and profitability.

Switch to Electric or Sustainable Fuel

While it can be a pricey investment for some, converting your vehicle fleet to electric significantly reduces your emissions when commuting and delivering food. There are cheaper, more achievable options if your company cannot afford to make this drastic change. Carpooling should be a standard practice in your company, whether for commuting to and from work or for delivering food to events.

Biofuel technology continues to advance and hopefully one day there will be more sustainable fuel options available for businesses. Biodiesel for company trucks is the only practical option on the market today, even though it is still partially petroleum-based. It is worth noting biofuel derived from leftover kitchen oil is in development and multiple trials have shown that it can power a vehicle. Unfortunately it requires some modification to the vehicle, meaning you cannot simply dump your kitchen oil into your Ford Focus and drive off. But it is encouraging to know that such innovation is underway and perhaps one day catering companies can supply their own fuel.

For now, electrical vehicles and carpooling are the best methods for catering companies to cut down on transportation emissions.

Conclusion: Sustainable Catering Is Full Of Green Opportunities

There are many initiatives that your catering business can take right away that will put you on the right path toward sustainability. Greening your menu, sourcing locally, opting for sustainable tableware, and minimizing water and food waste are all effective strategies. It doesn’t really matter where you start. The sustainable choices you make today, big or small, positively impact your community, the environment and your business.

About the Author

Jack Duncan

GBB Green Ambassador

Jack Duncan is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who is pursuing a degree in the environmental sciences and community planning at Westfield State University. He is passionate about nature and environmental issues and loves spending time outdoors. His hobbies include hiking, running, photography and videography. After college, he hopes to travel and pursue a meaningful job in the environmental field.

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