Waste Not, Want Not: 10 Solutions for Reducing Restaurant Food Waste

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5 min read

Jul 24, 2023

Waste Not, Want Not: 10 Solutions for Reducing Restaurant Food Waste

There is enough food waste in landfills around the world to feed a billion people. And the scraps homes and businesses toss in the trash produce double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than the aviation industry. Given how staggering these numbers are, we’d understand if you told us that your heart breaks every time your chefs toss spoiled food into the garbage bin. Ours break just thinking about it. 

But restaurant owners and operators are doing everything they can to eliminate food waste. From a cost perspective, reducing the amount of food waste saves money and offers welcome relief now that the cost to create some dishes is up 150%. But intentional sustainability efforts matter to the customer, too. Datassential says that restaurant sustainability practices influence 57% of customers’ dining preferences when eating out. 

If you’ve been struggling to implement ethical food waste solutions, this article is for you. We’ll discuss the main causes of restaurant food waste and 10 ways to reduce it. 

What Causes Restaurant Food Waste?

Move for Hunger states that nearly half a pound of food is wasted per meal in restaurants, whether it’s left on a customer’s plate or allowed to wither away on a forgotten kitchen shelf. There are several common sources of food waste in restaurants, and knowing how to spot the potential problem areas can help you minimize it.

Miscalculated portions and poor recipe management
Accidental food spillage that is impossible to salvage
Spoilage as a result of improper ordering, handling, storing or packaging
Refires, also known as reheating food that’s been sent back by the customer

10 Ways to Eliminate Food Waste in Restaurants

Some food waste in restaurants is inevitable, but operators can minimize it with proper training, intelligent staffing and best practices. In the case of IKEA which, aside from furniture, runs one of the biggest restaurant chains in the world, has cut food waste by 54% since 2017. That carbon footprint reduction translates to roughly 20 million meals and a savings of $37 million.

Below are various ways restaurant owners and operators can eliminate food waste, cut costs and consider the environment.

1. Perform a Waste Audit

To understand how much food your restaurant is wasting, perform a week-long audit. 

Before close, open your trash bags and sort the garbage into different categories, such as: 

Takeout products
Paper goods
Other (aluminium foil, broken dishes, etc.) 

After you’ve sorted all the junk, weigh each pile on a scale and record the weight in a spreadsheet. Then, multiply each pile’s weight by the number of days your restaurant is open per year. This will give you a clear understanding of your annual waste.

The categories that weigh the most require the most attention. For instance, if you learn that you mostly waste produce, you can take steps to address the waste, such as committing to smarter inventory planning, better storage options or a more intentional menu design that uses these ingredients. 

Pro Tip: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a helpful roadmap and guide on how to manage wasted food and create a sustainable management program. 

2. Create a Waste Tracker

The waste audit offers a great opportunity to set a new standard in your restaurant by creating a waste tracker – a valuable tool for monitoring progress and assessing the impact of your waste reduction initiatives. 

A waste tracker can take whatever form works best for your restaurant, but a spreadsheet is a simple and easy way to record information. The specific metric to be tracked is the weight of trash and recyclables. This gives you a detailed understanding of what’s happening. 

Additionally, ensure there’s a column for notes, helping provide context for causes – such as rotten produce, broken glasses or other freak accidents. 

FYI: Cloud-based inventory management software is another alternative to manually predicting and tracking inventory. It can also help you effectively monitor and reduce food costs.

3. Sell or Donate Surpluses to Your Local Community

Too Good To Go is a platform that helps restaurants sell their surplus food at reduced prices. For example, Just Salad, a salad franchise, launched a pilot with Too Good To Go in 2021 and saved roughly 29,000 meals

Using these types of apps helps get the most out of your restaurant’s ingredients while providing another income stream that fights against the ongoing challenges of inflation.

4. Maintain Proper Food Storage

Something as simple as storing food properly can help reduce food waste. Ensure all food items are stored correctly in designated areas, using appropriate containers, and maintaining optimal temperatures for their preservation.

Not sure how to create a system? Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the FoodKeeper, an easy-to-use app that offers advice and provides tools for kitchens to manage food storage. Further, be sure your food storage system meets all government rules and regulations

Utilize a clear labeling and storage system that all members of your team understand. Examine your own operations to determine the best type of inventory management, helping reduce the amount of food that might go bad and end up in landfills.

5. Create a Composting Plan

Food waste isn’t just what’s leftover on a plate or something spilled in the kitchen. Food scraps from the kitchen — such as avocado skins and cores, extra bones, apple stems, potato peels — can be used to create a composting plan for your restaurant that repurposes food waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

New York City restaurant Blackbarn has created its own unique composting approach specifically for growing mushrooms by sending its food scraps to a composting facility that uses it to grow eight different types of mushrooms before delivering them back to the restaurant. 

It’s a true farm-to-table experience — a sustainable solution they can market to customers.

Did You Know? Sustainability is very important to customers. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, 38% of surveyed respondents are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers locally-sourced foods versus one that doesn’t. What’s more, another 30% said they’d pick an establishment offering environmentally friendly or organically grown food.

6. Design New Offerings Based On Your Surplus 

Similar to composting, extra food items offer opportunities to invent a new dish. 

For example, Michigan-based chef, Johnny Propolec, implemented innovative food waste programs at his restaurants in Royal Oak. Through daily food waste tracking, he determined that his top three streams of food waste were lemons, steak trimmings and rice. Rather than toss the extras in the garbage, his staff began using lemon rinds for cleaning, turning steak trimmings into meatballs and utilizing leftover rice for a new dish.

7. Embrace Multi-Use Menu Items

When designing your menu, think strategically. Can you offer a more limited menu that uses similar ingredients? If only one dish uses asparagus, you may want to rethink that food item altogether. But if several dishes use potatoes, buy them in bulk and negotiate a discount with your supplier. 

You can also consider incorporating seasonal menus based on the ingredients that keep longer during certain times of the year.

8. Run Weekly Specials

Coordinate your weekly specials with your (potential) food loss. For example, if chicken thighs need to be cooked, it might be time for a chicken special. Not only do you move items through your inventory faster, but specials also help offer customers a bit of variety. 

9. Reduce Spoilage by Ordering to Par

“Ordering to par” is a concept based on ordering the minimum inventory required to meet your restaurant’s demand while accounting for slight variations in daily demand.

This is determined by analyzing past sales data. This information will help you forecast the future. And don’t forget to account for holidays and other special occasions when your restaurant might be busier than normal.

10. Train Staff On Inventory Management Best Practices

Set a standard and create clear policies for your restaurant. Training your staff to think a certain way about inventory management sets a tone and culture for your restaurant – one that snips food waste in the bud. It’s much easier to prevent waste from happening than dealing with waste after it occurs.

For instance, inventory days on hand (DOH) is a method of tracking the average number of days your restaurant holds onto before selling it. Food items with a higher DOH suggest that guests aren’t responding well to how they’re used on the menu. On the other hand, a lower DOH suggests what you’re doing is working. Using this analysis helps inform menu decisions that create an environment that minimizes food waste.

Further, adopting the FIFO method (first-in, first-out) means your kitchen uses the oldest items first. While adhering to food safety guidelines, your team utilizes the older stock before tapping the new stuff. This prevents wasting good products. 

Successful Restaurants Monitor and Control Their Food Waste

The best restaurants in the industry address common causes of waste and implement strategies to reduce it. As a restaurant owner or operator, it’s your responsibility to ensure your restaurant is doing all it can to keep waste minimal. Not only is it important for your bottom line, but it’s vital for helping the environment. By adopting proactive measures and embracing a culture of waste reduction, restaurants set themselves apart as thought leaders in managing their environmental impact – and ensuring their long-term success.

Food Waste FAQs

Why is There so Much Food Waste in Restaurants?

The most common causes for restaurant food waste is attributed to miscalculated portions, poor recipe management, spoilage and spillages.

How Much Food is Wasted by Restaurants?

U.S. restaurant waste about 22 to 33 billion pounds of food each year and approximately 4%-10% is wasted before reaching the customer.

How Does Composting Help Reduce Food Waste?

Composting is an effective strategy for fighting food waste because it reduces the amount of food scraps sent to landfills. That not only eliminates the production of unnecessary greenhouse gas but provides a system to enrich soil health and fertility, helping foster a healthy environment for future farming and growth.

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