It should come as no surprise that when a cafeteria -- whether at a school or corporate campus -- cuts out trays for ferrying food from service to table, diners will eat less. (For example, a 2006 study from Georgia Tech found that a 50 percent increase in bowl size led to 31 percent larger serving sizes.)

But what is surprising is the amount of other benefits that schools are getting from "trayless dining," a trend that is apparently on the rise, according to an article in the New York Times today.

From the article, by Lisa W. Foderaro:
Scores of colleges and universities across the country are shelving the trays in hopes of conserving water, cutting food waste, softening the ambience and saving money. Some even believe trayless cafeterias could help avoid the dreaded "freshman 15" -- the number of pounds supposedly gained in the first year on campus (and on all-you-can-eat meal plans). "I like not having to carry a tray around," said Peter McInerney, a freshman here at Skidmore College, as he grabbed a midafternoon snack of an egg sandwich, pancakes and apple juice. "It makes it feel like this is less of a machine just spitting food out. It's still not home, but it feels more homey without the tray."

The Sustainable Endowments Institute, a research organization that tracks environmental practices at the 300 colleges and universities with the largest endowments, said that 126 of them had curtailed use of trays, some of them banishing trays only from certain dining halls, and some introducing, for example, "trayless Tuesdays." Such moves are often part of a larger push to embrace environmentalism that includes hiring sustainability coordinators, introducing solar panels, composting dining-hall waste and encouraging students to turn off lights with catchy sayings like "Do It in the Dark."

"The trend has definitely taken off," said Mark Orlowski, executive director of the institute, which this fall plans to add a question about trayless cafeterias to an annual survey that includes other dining-related topics like vegan entrees, biodegradable containers and community gardens. "It reduces not just waste, but energy and water consumption. Over all, it's been very successful."
The last corporate cafeteria I had the pleasure of dining in was the Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco's Presidio. I was too blown away by the local, organic produce (at least some of it grown on Skywalker Ranch in nearby Marin County), the array of vegetarian and vegan options, and just the fact that I was in the Lucasfilm headquarters to recall if there were trays involved or not, but clearly that experience doesn't hold up to a lot of comparison with either typical cafeterias or campus dining halls.

If cafeterias can't all be Lucasfilms, let's hope at least that more campus dining halls and corporate cafeterias can take steps in that direction. Read the rest of Foderaro's article at NYTimes.com.

Cafeteria photos CC-licensed by Flickr users Pathfinder Linden and ashour rehana.