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How to Minimize Catering Food Waste

We recently noticed that our customers have been more interested in 1/2 and 1/3 size food pans for their chafing dishes than the typical hotel pans they usually request. This shift in demand got us curious about what's going on in the catering industry, so we asked around.

There are some smart caterers out there! They've figure out how a very simple technique can significantly reduce food waste and keep more money in their pockets. It was a really great tip for us, so we're here to share it with you.  

For Those new to Catering, What are Chafing Dishes and Food Pans?

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Pictured: Urban Mill™ round, melamine coupe plates


Chafers provide indirect heat to maintain the temperature of hot food. They're usually 2.5" deep, but 4-inch deep pans called 400 pans are also an option. Food pans of varying sizes are placed on top of a water pan. Steam from the water pan helps to even out heat distribution and minimize the extent to which food may dry out. 

Most chafing dishes can accommodate a full size pan, also called a hotel pan. This means chafers can typically hold one hotel pan, two 1/2 pans, three 1/3 pans, or one 2/3 pan with a 1/3 pan, which can help build flexibility into a buffet operation. However, you can find smaller chafers that fit half-size hotel pans. Smaller chafers can save room - a precious commodity for some caterers - but also lock you into fewer setup options. One isn't better than the other, it just depends on what your needs are. 

Additionally, more options for square and round chafers are hitting the market, giving operators additional options than the traditional rectangular pan, often referred to as an oblong. 

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What We Learned About Minimizing Food Waste

Traditionally, caterers have used hotel pans for serving entrées. We can see how it makes sense to put your biggest recipes in the largest vessels. But a few things actually happen with this practice that not only result in high amounts of food waste, but also a decrease in presentation and food quality.

People prefer to take, or be served from pans that are brimming with food. Full size pans can start to look wimpy and depleted when they're only about 1/2 or 2/3 empty. It's common practice to toss out food at that point, so operators may essentially waste half to one-third of the food used in these pans. 

On the contrary, not replacing food at this point creates the potential for it to dry out, burn, and otherwise become unappealing. If that happens, you're back at square one because no one wants to eat old, dry food, and it ends up getting tossed anyway. Further, even if you have leftover food in your chafing dish, it can't be re-served at your next event. It's trash, too. 

What's a caterer to do? Tie a cape on your smaller food pans because they're about to save your day. 

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Not finding the answers you want? Leave a comment telling us what we're missing and we'll cover it for you.  

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How Smaller Pans Minimize Food Waste While Improving Service and Profits

Switching to smaller pans for entrée service, like 1/2 and 1/3 pans, can be a tremendous improvement over hotel pans in terms of:

  • Reduced food waste
  • Improved freshness
  • Improved overall quality
  • Improved presentation

Let's say you put two 1/2 pans on a chafing dish instead of a full one. You could even put out three 1/3 pans. (Some folks like this look while others don't. Whether you use three 1/3 pans is up to your personal or guests' preferences.)

Either way, you end up presenting the same amount of food to your guests, but your offerings will look fuller, longer. It's a simple optical illusion that allows you to dish up more of your food before your pans look depleted or potentially undesirable, which means you're throwing away less food. 

Even better, smaller pans hold in your food's moisture more effectively because there's not as much space for it to escape. Dry chicken breast? Not any more. Juices from succulent proteins like steak, salmon, chicken, etc., stay closer to the meat because there isn't room for it to collect in corners, drying out pieces in the center. 

From there, it's a domino effect of deliciousness (and better margins):

  • Keeping your food from drying out holds in all the flavors and tenderness you worked so hard to create
    • Your food looks fresher and more enticing
      • Guests get better value for their money
        • You throw away less food
          • You lower your par levels
            • You keep more money

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 Pictured: chafing dishes in use at a catered event

This tactic is especially useful in on-going service settings like casinos and late-night cruise ship buffets. In these scenarios, guests come and go as they please. There will still be higher-volume service around normal meal times, but guests who stop by during off times should still get the same quality food as your noon-sharp diners. 

If reducing food waste is high on your list, take some time to re-evaluate your chafing dish setup. Test out different configurations between full, 1/2, and 1/3 size pans and reach out to your guests to see what they liked best. Through a little trial and error, you can absolutely minimize wasted food while serving a fresher, more attractive, higher quality product. 

If you're a caterer who often does buffet service off-site, we also recommend taking a look at your heat sources. Direct and indirect heat, access to electricity, burn bans, etc., can all impact how you serve your food. Check out "Which is Better for Off-Site Catering: Chafing Fuel, Induction Cooktops, or Butane Gas?"

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