Canadians are prodigious food wasters. According to a recent study by the Ontario-based Value Chain Management Centre, an estimated $27-billion worth of meat, vegetables and dairy spoil annually, almost half of which is unwanted leftovers.
It's particularly troubling news to hear right before Thanksgiving – a holiday weekend entirely devoted to stuffing our faces with gravy-drenched everything, followed by days of stuffing our trash cans with unwanted cheesy broccoli and sweet-potato casseroles.
But this weekend, as home chefs open too many cans of cranberry sauce, there is another option – preparing family meals for 10 to 12 by following in the footsteps of those who regularly cook for hundreds a night. After all, with the notoriously high overhead and low margins of the food-service industry, top restaurateurs have to be ruthlessly efficient with how they stock their pantries, the size of dishes they send out, and how they use their leftovers. To them, wasting food is wasting money – it's simply not an option.
According to Andrew Carter of Toronto's Oxley Public House, straightforward meal planning is the first step in preventing waste. "You need to set your menus in advance, including knowing exactly how much food you'll need, and then stick to that strategy at the grocery store. A lot of overbuying happens when people just go to the store and start grabbing what they think they'll want."
One way of fine-tuning quantities is to think carefully about what items people actually enjoy. Carter has more than 50 unique dish options between his brunch, lunch, dinner and bar menus, and can easily send out 500 plates a day. He knows, however, that some things are more popular than others, and orders accordingly. For Thanksgiving at home, that could mean upping the stuffing and sidelining some of the Brussels sprouts (kids, rejoice).
Portioning for a meal can be tricky, however. According to Robert Belcham, making sure there's exactly the right amount of food "is one of the toughest parts of being a chef." When the 20-year veteran cooks multicourse, family-style meals at his Vancouver restaurant, Campagnolo, he tries to be precise with his menu planning. If he starts hearing from wait staff that people are getting full, he cuts the sizes of the remaining dishes. That way, there's less food left on the plates at the end of the night. A home chef might put that tip to practice by seeing how everyone is feeling after the apps. If guests have gorged themselves on shrimp cocktails, maybe you don't need to roast all those parsnips.
Lora Kirk agrees that flexibility is essential, as is coming up with a plan for anything unused. At Ruby Watchco in Toronto, where the menu changes daily, she might prep the exact number of green beans she thinks are necessary (by washing, trimming and par-blanching them). If she runs through what's she's prepped, she'll tap into her reserves, but she'll also start thinking about what to do with anything she doesn't serve – pickling the beans (to sell in her food shop, Ruby Eats), perhaps, or making them into a salad for a staff meal the next day.
Kirk also points out that pantry management is fundamental to reducing waste – starting with an inventory of what you've got. "I'm constantly keeping tabs on my fridge. I look in it 100 times a day to see what I have, what I need to use and what I need more of." It's a smart strategy, because, hiding behind the expired condiments you're too lazy to toss, there might actually be a few things you can put to good use this Thanksgiving – things you might have bought and forgotten about since the last trip to the grocery store.