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 includes: 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 a 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 vegetable 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