November, 2015

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

An Examination Of The Relationship Between Plate Waste And Food Pairings In School Meals

By Ariun Ishdorj, Oral Capps, Jr. And Peter S. Murano Of Texas A&M; Maureen Storey Of Alliance For Potato Research And Education

The Premise

Plate waste, defined as the quantity of edible food left uneaten after a meal, is a challenge for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It is not clear why students participating in NSLP waste as much food as they do. Many factors may contribute to the waste, which include: a dislike or unfamiliarity with the foods served, the environment in which students are eating, lack of time to eat, or perhaps other factors. One factor not explored was the meal composition or pairings of certain foods that could enhance appeal, palatability and acceptability of the meal and lead to less plate waste. Therefore, the objective of this study (Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches) was to examine the relationship between food pairings (e.g. entrees and vegetables; and plate waste by elementary school students).


During the 2012-2013 school year, new school meal nutrition standards were implemented in accordance with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations stemming from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for American. The new USDA guidelines for school meals were designed to improve the nutrient density of foods offered and set standards for calories, sodium, and saturated fat. In addition, among other requirements, the guidelines specified serving a greater variety of vegetables and established larger portion sizes for fruits and vegetables.

Data Collection

Plate waste data was collected from three elementary schools (kindergarten through fifth grade) in one school district located in central Texas participating in the United States Department of Agriculture’s school meal program. Plate waste collections were conducted in two phases. Phase 1 was conducted in April and May 2012, pre-implementation of the new nutrition standards, while Phase 2 was conducted in October and November 2012, post-implementation of the new nutrition standards.

Altogether, plate waste data from 8,430 students were collected — corresponding to 4,145 students pre-implementation and 4,285 students post-implementation of school meal standards. A total of 144 observations of entrée/vegetable pairings repeated by grade and school (27 distinct pairings) were collected pre-implementation; and 305 observations of entrée/vegetable pairings repeated by grade and school (56 distinct pairings) were collected post-implementation. Analyses of the respective entrée/vegetable pairings were conducted to determine plate waste and therefore, acceptability for particular entrée/vegetable pair subsequently.

Reaching A Goal

In order to meet the new nutrition standards, schools in our sample offered more selection of vegetables and modified recipes post-implementation of the new standards, but the serving sizes did not change. Overall, our results indicated that more nutritious meals were offered during the post-implementation period compared to the pre-implementation period. The new school meal standards had no effect on the entrée plate waste, but vegetable plate waste increased by 5.6 percent. This led to a small insignificant increase in the combined plate waste from entrée and vegetable pairings (40.4 percent pre- and 43.5 percent post-implementation). Modification of the recipes and possible lower familiarity with some of the vegetables offered may have contributed to the increased vegetable waste observed post-implementation.


The top five vegetables in terms of popularity were all starchy vegetables, the majority of which were potatoes in various processed forms. The least popular vegetables were dark-green leafy vegetables, such as steamed broccoli, both pre- and post-implementation. Chicken nuggets were the most popular entrée and were wasted the least. Four out of five pairings that had the lowest overall plate waste involved white potato products. Our findings from elementary school lunches, therefore, are consistent with those from previous behavioral and experimental studies. We observed that specific pairings of entrées and vegetables reduced total food waste. Pairings of more popular entrées with less popular vegetables resulted in higher vegetable waste.

Specifically, chicken nuggets were wasted less when paired with green beans and wasted more when paired with mashed potatoes. Compared to pairing of green beans with chicken nuggets, green beans were wasted less when paired with steak fingers and pepperoni hot pockets. In general, entrees and vegetables pairings with the least overall plate waste involved the most popular entrées and the most popular vegetables for elementary school students.

Study Credit: Ishdorj, A. , Capps Jr., O. , Storey, M. and Murano, P. (2015) Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 6, 1029-1044. doi: 10.4236/fns.2015.611107.

Research was funded by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE).

The Authors:

Ariun Ishdorj, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University;

Oral Capps, Jr., Executive Professor and Regents Professor, Co-Director, Agribusiness, Food and Consumer Economics Research Center (AFCERC), Holder of the Southwest Dairy Marketing Endowed Chair, Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University;

Maureen Storey, President and CEO, Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE);

Peter S. Murano, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Texas A&M University


Let Them Choose

Sometimes we have to do research to confirm what we strongly suspect — in this case, if you serve the entrees children like best and pair them with the vegetables children like best, then the children are more likely to eat what is served — thus waste less than if you served less popular entrees and vegetables.

The question is: What does this mean for the school lunch program and, more generally, for produce industry efforts to interface with schoolchildren?

There is an argument to be made that these efforts are misplaced. In Britain, famed chef Jamie Oliver helped redesign the school lunch program in a healthier direction, but the kids so objected to the food that we soon had TV reports showing mothers sneaking food to their kids during recess.

Food waste, itself, is probably as much a function of serving policy as it is of foods offered. Although the authors are uncertain why children waste as much food as they do, we would say that the answer is pretty clear: The children are being required to put foods they don’t want on their plates. In a private school, not participating in the National School Lunch Program, just down the road from this magazine’s headquarters, the children used to walk down the cafeteria line and select which items they wanted on their plates. In order to boost vegetable consumption, the school changed policies and required that every student accept the vegetable and have it put on the plate. No research was done, so whether there was any incremental increase in vegetable consumption can’t be stated definitively, but the amount of food waste was so obviously increased that the whole project was abandoned.

There is something about the attitude with which this field is approached that treats children like prisoners or members of the army. The obvious alternative is to treat children as people, well able to make their own food choices. Then, those who want to urge them to eat healthier food have to actually do something difficult: educate children about making good choices and offer culinary options that are delicious, appealing and healthy.

The other thing to note is many of these initiatives are questionable both because children differ from one another in nutritional needs and because what exactly promotes health is controversial. For example, this columnist’s nephews were both in high school when the new guidelines were implemented. Both are more than 6 feet tall, both are highly athletic; one is a runner who clocks in several hours a day; the other is always playing volleyball, basketball and other sports. They are each thin as a rail. After practice, they would enjoy a Snapple beverage. After the switch to the new standards, the school only would sell Diet Snapple. What, precisely, is accomplished here? Certainly my nephews have no need to restrict their caloric consumption. Is it so obvious to everyone that consuming aspartame is healthier?

In fact, the offer of the diet beverages indicates the whole effort is off kilter anyway. The real challenge is to retrain children’s palates to appreciate flavor profiles that are not instinctive. This is a big challenge. At home, conscientious moms have done this for generations both by educating their progeny and by identifying those specific healthy things their own children would want to eat.

Now at home, it is increasingly difficult as working mothers have to prioritize getting things done and rely on more processed foods. Diet beverages should, in theory, reduce caloric intake, but if the consumption of diet beverages trains the taste buds to like sweet things, they may lead to high-caloric consumption.

Looking to increase vegetable consumption is laudable, but if you are serving chicken nuggets, one might question the seriousness of the effort to serve healthy food.

And in back of all this, we have the trade’s primary school outreach effort, to get salad bars placed in every school. Salad bars have the great effect of showing respect to children by allowing them to choose their own foods. The produce industry likes them because the industry sees visible POs for items every week. But, we are dealing with children, and if the respect for autonomy in children is not combined with proper education — not just for what is good for you, but also for how to compose foods in a delicious and easy-to-digest manner — we may find that children turn themselves off fresh produce, because they don’t know how to compose foods in a way they will enjoy.

In this sense, getting children to stop wasting vegetables illustrates the challenge before the industry. It is not enough to change laws or rules and dump a big ratatouille on every child’s plate. We have to serve foods children enjoy, and if we want those foods to be healthy, we have to educate children both as to what is healthy and how to make the healthy delicious.