Don't Throw It All Away: What I Learned On My Winter Vacation

Back in November -- appropriately enough, on Thanksgiving Day -- four scientists for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, published a report about the environmental impact of food waste in America. They calculated that, every year, as much as 40 percent of America’s food supply is discarded! (That’s a 28 percent increase, by the way, since 1974.) If you divide that amount among every man, woman and child living in the U.S., we’re talking 1,400 kilocalories -- or 1.4 million calories -- per day, per person, that end up in the trash.

That is a staggering number, and the environmental impact, as well as the obvious societal implications are equally staggering. But after what I observed last week during a family vacation in Mexico, it’s not hard to believe.

I was staying at an all-inclusive resort that offers expansive daily buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus additional “lighter” meals in the late-morning, late-afternoon, and late-night. The all-inclusive policy means that guests pay one price, up front, and all food and beverages are included in the room rate. As you can imagine, this causes many vacationers to justify, shall we say, overindulgence. (We overheard one employee, dressed in an inflatable sumo wrestling suit, kidding with a co-worker that she gained “a little weight” while vacationing there.) But what was most shocking to me was not how much food gets eaten, but how much is thrown away.

For example, I witnessed people at dinner helping themselves to two appetizers, a pasta dish, all three entries, three side dishes, two varieties of bread, and three desserts; and then, because every stomach has its limit, eating only a fraction of it. The rest is swept away by one of many polite and efficient Mexican bussers who all have been carefully trained not to roll their eyes or shake their heads at the excesses of their guests.

I have to sadly admit that my own family was not exempt from this type of wasteful, indulgent behavior. Like when my eight-year-old daughter wanted to try escargot -- yes, she knew it was snails -- and helped herself to a bowl containing about a dozen of the little suckers. She ate a total of one, scrunched up her nose, and decided that the rest sacrificed their lives only to be dumped into the garbage bin.

Dare I say that many, if not most of us are conditioned to mindlessly throw away food? For instance, we women are taught that it is crude and unsophisticated to eat everything on our plates -- in the presence of men, that is. Conventional dating advice warns us not to have more than a few bites, lest our dates thinks we are unladylike gluttons. It’s more alluring to be deprived and dishonest dimwits, I guess, whose uneaten platefuls of food represent determination and discipline, and certainly not wastefulness or ingratitude. (Men: Beware of these women.) As for some men, they seem to be just as bad at asking for doggie bags as they are for directions. (Women: Beware of these men.)

Last year, I spent a weekend at a silent Buddhist meditation retreat with a hundred other people. We were carefully instructed how to conduct ourselves, how to interact with each other, and how to take food together -- without speaking. Mealtimes were considered especially sacred. We were told to take as much food as we were hungry for. And then to eat it. All of it. I got the idea very quickly that clean plates were blissful plates. This simple guideline has been helpful to me ever since. I have become more aware of how hungry I really am before I automatically start shoveling food onto my plate; and I have used it to try to teach my children the same lesson (slip-ups with snails notwithstanding).

It’s a lesson that was reinforced last week by one of my fellow vacationers. Unlike all the others who bellied up to the breakfast bar one morning, this trim, agile, grandfatherly Asian man treated his food with reverence and respect. He put two slices of bread into the toaster and obviously forgot to adjust the settings, because what popped up a few minutes later were two slices of badly burnt toast. But he didn’t toss them into the trash. He took them back to his table, sat down, picked up his butter knife, and then proceeded to painstakingly scrape off the dry, dark crumbs. When he was finished, he buttered it and ate it. All of it.

I realized then who he was: an angel, a seemingly common, everyday person -- like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life -- sent to this Mexican all-inclusive to tell anyone who would listen to take as much as you're hungry for. And then to eat it. All of it. Because wasting food is not only bad for the environment, it's bad for the soul.

Or, in the wise words of my mother: "There are children starving in Africa! Clean your plate!"

Well said, mom. Well said.


Great observation. This must happen every day at all you can eat restaurants. Overstocked supermarket shelves (especially fresh food such as meat or fruit) must also contribute significantly to food waste. The question is, how do we learn to accept out of stock items?

I recently had this experience (my personal solution was to try and clean my plate until I was painfully gorged). But I realize that this occurs in my own home, too! As Carrie observes above, we are conditioned by 'sell by', 'best by', etc. labels; how much food have I tossed because of the expiration date, only to turn around and buy its replacement so that I can start the cycle again.

I'm trying to be more mindful of how much food is in my pantry and refrigerator, and try to use them up before I buy more.

Having been to many an all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, I agree that the amount of waste is incredible! That being said, I think, although don't go to, any buffet restaurant suffers from the same. In my opinion it all boils down to valuing food and the impact of "cheap" food. Whether an all-you-can-eat buffet down the street or an all-inclusive resort in Mexico people tend to want to get the most for their money, resulting in at least taking more than they know they should. Often the quality of the food served at those places is low. It's cheap and unsatisfying so we either eat more than we should in an effort to be satisfied or waste it when we find it unappealing.

It was bred into me by my mother to always clear my plate (though I still need to get better at not overfilling my plate in the first place). I can still hear her words echoing as I would stare at whatever it was that I didn't want to eat: "you'll follow the crows for it yet". I may not have liked it at the time, but I did develop a real respect for food and a horror of the level of waste you describe.

Thanks Carrie, Kris, and Tracey for weighing in - you're such smart and thoughtful people, we're lucky to have your points-of-view here.

Your points about what we buy and eat at home, in restaurants (we can also discuss the enormous portion size we've been conditioned to expect), and at grocery stores are terrific. We don't need to be at an all-inclusive resort to waste food, or to think about the true value of what we've got in front of us.

We've come to think of an abundance of EVERYTHING as the true representation of achieving the American Dream, but it's encouraging that so many people are having second thoughts!

Great article! We see this everyday in our business. It is truly staggering the amount of waste produced in any type of foodservice establishment, not just 'all you can eat' places.

In general, 4-10% of the raw product purchase for a foodservice operation is PRE-consumer waste. (That's before it even gets to a guest!!!) In dollars - that about $40,000-$100,000 in food waste for every $1 million spent on food. (an average size hospital spends about $1m every year.)

If you would like to see a few reports with waste measured in pounds (weight) and dollars, visit our website:

Hey, just wanted to let you know that in Google Reader, this post loses all of its paragraph breaks. Makes it much more difficult to read. I imagine there's a setting somewhere to fix this.

thanks heather! looking into it. we appreciate the feedback.

Here's the link to a great article, published today at the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website. It defends the use of appropriate packaging to prevent food waste:


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