Cafeterias across the nation have gone green by eliminating food trays from their establishments in an effort to reduce food waste. With the use of only two hands, this green move has inversely led diners to skip the salad and go for the entrée and dessert, leading to more — not less — food waste. According to a recent study, diners who eat with a tray are found to eat more greens, consume less calories, and waste less food.

Microenvironments are known to influence what and how much people eat and how much they enjoy it. Brian Wansink, John S. Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University, behavioral economist, food psychologist, and author of the book Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, believes cues in the environment shape individuals to eat too much and too much of the wrong food. However, powerful, small changes may help people mindlessly eat less than mindlessly overeat. Wansink’s approach to changing eating behaviors is not done through traditional education but rather by changing the individual’s food environments that lead to unhealthy eating habits.

The five places that exist in an individual’s food environment where they purchase and consume all of their food are: home, work, school, grocery stores and restaurants. Small but gradual personal changes made by diners and these food establishments could help lead to a healthier lifestyle. Scientific eating approaches like changing plate size and eating with a tray in the workplace or school cafeterias can lead to a reduction in waistline and food waste.

Published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, Wansink and a team of researchers at Cornell University, investigated how the effect of not having a tray in a university cafeteria impacted students’ food choice. Four hundred and seventeen university students were recruited to consume dinner between a tray and trayless service in two-week intervals for the study. The dinner menus remained the same throughout the alternated tray and trayless dining options.

On the first night, dinner service was conducted with trays as usual, while on the second night, there were no trays present. Upon completion of their meal, the participants’ trays were collected so the researchers could precisely measure the food remaining. Diners were asked how many trips they had taken to the buffet in one sitting at the university cafeteria. The researchers primarily focused on the percentage of people taking each of the salad, entrée, and dessert, along with the grams of food each diner wasted on each of the two days.

The findings revealed the diners with a tray tended to take a salad, main course, and a dessert because the tray enabled them to carry more. In contrast, the participants without a tray were forced to leave something behind because they were limited to the use of just their two hands. The students with a tray ate 92 percent more of their salad compared with their trayless counterparts who only ate 53 percent more of their greens, according to the news release. The researchers found the amount of dessert remaining was insignificant because those who went trayless were more likely to opt for an entrée and dessert, while those with a tray had a salad, an entrée, and dessert. Overall, the diners who went trayless were more likely to take less healthy options and waste more food than when they used a tray.

In terms of food waste, the diners were less likely to eat all of their entrée, salad, or dessert on the trayless day. The trayless diners were found to compensate for having fewer items by taking greater portions of these items — often unhealthy entrées and desserts — which led to greater food waste. Eliminating trays affects food choices and not for the better, wrote the researchers.

“A better means to reduce food waste would be to change the shape of the trays, make them smaller and introducing compartments where food types should go,” the researchers said in the news release. “Reducing waste and costs for an eatery should go hand-in-hand with making diners 'slim by design.'”

Rather, Wansink and David Just, researcher of the study, suggest cafeterias to experiment with smaller trays or lining trays with “waste not” labels in their efforts to reduce food waste. The use of smaller plates is a healthy eating strategy conceived by Wansink who says people will feel satisfied because the plate visually looks full. “People serve about 22 percent less on this on than they do on your typical 12-inch plate,” he told CBS Pittsburgh.

Food industry and governments can collectively aim to change the food environments in which Americans purchase and consume their foods to encourage healthy eating habits. Simple solutions such as using smaller trays rather than going trayless could keep diners slim and reduce the amount of food waste in the environment.

To get more of Wansink’s mindless eating tips, click here.

Source: Just DR and Wansink B. Trayless cafeterias lead diners to take less salad and relatively more dessert. Public Health Nutrition. 2013.