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Ways to Reduce Food Waste in Your Restaurant

Ways to Reduce Food Waste in Your Restaurant

Last updated on 4/28/2021

Running a foodservice operation requires a lot of thinking. You have to order ingredients on time, balance your finances, and manage your staff amidst a world of other concerns. As important as it is to consider what food you’re making, it’s equally important to think about what happens to food that’s left uneaten. According to Feeding America, America produces an estimated 72 billion tons of food waste each year.

How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Restaurant

If you're looking for food waste solutions and how to reduce restaurant food waste in your establishment, follow the steps below to get started:

1. Conduct a Food Waste Audit

A food waste audit is identifying where your operation's food waste comes from, so you can then find ways to reduce your restaurant's food waste. The first step to reducing food waste is to find out exactly how much you’re wasting and what kind of waste your establishment is producing.

How to Conduct a Food Waste Audit

There are two main factors to take into account as you track your food waste. You need to consider how much food is being wasted and how many people are coming through your restaurant. By gathering data for both of these variables, you can get a better sense of what your biggest source of waste is.

taking food inventory

1. Food log system

Provide your staff with a simple sheet of paper where they can keep track of what's being thrown out, why it's being thrown out, and how much is wasted. As an alternative, there are waste tracking systems like Leanpath that use a specially designed scale with a touch screen terminal and computer software to track how much food you're throwing out without the hassle of a pencil and paper.

Also, be sure to keep a second log system for post-consumer waste, or what food customers pay for but don’t eat. This type of food waste is much more difficult to control because, ultimately, if that toddler at table 3 doesn't want the broccoli that was ordered for them, odds are good that you'll get it back untouched when they leave. Still, it's well worth evaluating what is being thrown out and how much this amounts to. Gathering as much data as feasibly possible will only help you when it comes time to evaluate the results and make changes to how your operation handles restaurant food waste.

2. Traffic log system

Another common tool that many restaurants use is a daily log of how much traffic the restaurant received and what the weather was like that day. For example, a log may show that 280 guests were served on the Friday before Christmas and the weather was 50 degrees and sunny. While this data may not seem useful right away, it’s immensely helpful when it comes to planning for the following year’s customer volume. If chefs can get a baseline of how much traffic to expect, based on the previous year’s findings, they will have a better sense of how much food to order. As years go by, this data becomes more and more valuable because the trends become clearer. Many POS systems feature daily log capabilities, so it’s worth looking out when you choose a POS for your business.

2. Seek Food Waste Solutions

wasted food in dumpster

Once you know what’s being wasted, talk to your staff and try to think of ways to improve. What are the biggest contributors to food waste in your kitchen? Why are specific items thrown out? These are the questions that should be in the back of your mind as you look at the data.

An easy way to think about the next steps is to break up your waste types into three categories:

  • Pre-consumer waste - food that doesn’t even leave the kitchen
  • Post-consumer waste - food that’s purchased by a customer, but not eaten
  • Disposables - things like paper goods, plastic utensils, and packaging

Next, consider the following options and determine which ways make the most sense to implement as solutions to each type of waste:

Ways to Reduce Pre-Consumer Food Waste

Pre-consumer waste is the area where you likely have the most opportunity for positive change because there are many factors within your control when it comes to ordering, storing, and prepping your ingredients as well as how you handle surplus ingredients.

  • Evaluate inventory - If you find that food sits around too long in storage, make sure you’re not ordering too much.
  • Maximize shelf life - If the ingredients you need are going bad before you have a chance to use them, make sure perishables are being properly stored so that you’re not wasting ingredients before they are even cooked.
  • Find ways of repurposing ingredients - Try making day-old bread into croutons, or putting leftover turkey meat into a soup. Similarly, an innovative chef will be able to transform excess ingredients into a daily special. There are also a lot of great ways to use overripe fruit before it goes bad.
  • Train staff to reduce food waste - Make sure your staff knows how much ingredients cost. Train them to treat each ingredient as if they bought it with their own money. Training staff on proper storage techniques such as how to flash freeze food will be a big help in reducing food waste. Proper preparation techniques also help to reduce the waste of perfectly good food.
  • Keep your stock organized - Make sure that your perishables are being used promptly by developing a refrigerator rotation system. Many restaurants call this the "first in, first out" system, more commonly known as FIFO. Use stickers with the packaging date displayed or "Use First" written in large letters to help staff recognize exactly which products need to be used quickly to prevent spoilage.
  • Offer staff meals - If there’s just a small amount of ingredients left that won’t be enough for another dinner service, you can give it to your staff for free. Feeding your staff raises morale and prevents good food from being thrown away.
  • Consider donating food - If you have items that are still safe for consumption but, for one reason or another, can’t be used, a local food bank may appreciate your contribution to feeding people in your community. Programs like Feeding America make it easy to put those unsellable leftovers to good use. Food banks will sometimes even come to your establishment and pick up food for free, and you can claim these charitable donations on your tax return.
  • Food scraps can be used for animal feed - Many local farmers will provide low-cost or free pick up for food scraps, which can be fed to hogs or other animals. If you go this route, you will want to make sure you are following any local, state, or federal regulations on what can and can't be used for animal feed. It presents another chance to help out the local economy while cutting back on your food waste at the same time. The EPA offers a guide covering some additional ways to do this.

Ways to Reduce Post-Consumer Waste

There’s not much you can do with the food once it’s left your kitchen, but you can make sure that you’re presenting guests with the necessary information and proper portion sizes, so your customers know what to expect and can eat until they are comfortably full.

  • Monitor portion sizes - If your portions are too big for customers to finish, try a portion scale or some portion spoons to make sure that your customers are getting an appropriate amount of food. Standardizing recipes is one way of ensuring that every member of your staff is plating the same amount of food every time.
  • food in takeout container
  • Manage customer expectations - Guests will be less likely to send a dish back if it’s been completely and accurately described on the menu. Make sure your wait staff can explain every item on the menu and answer any questions that guests may have.
  • Track the popularity of each dish - If certain menu items are unpopular, you might want to consider adjusting the recipe or removing it from the menu.
  • Encourage guests to take their food home with them - This is standard practice at most restaurants. Make sure you keep a variety of disposable containers on hand, so guests can take home whatever they can’t finish.

Disposable Alternatives

While the use of disposables aids in reducing food waste in restaurants, they are inherently designed to be thrown away, so be mindful of which disposables you choose and try to think of ways around using them whenever possible.

  • Set Up Customer Incentives - If you own a cafe or convenience store, you can set up a discount for customers who bring their to-go mugs.
  • Use Eco-Friendly Disposable - If there’s no way around using disposable items, try to choose items that are environmentally-friendly whenever possible.

3. Use Alternative Waste Disposal Options

woman holding box full of garbage to recycle

Consider alternative ways of disposing of your waste that don’t bury food, plastics, cans, and cardboard in a landfill.

  • Composting - If you are fortunate enough to have space, you can compost on-site. If you don't have the space to run a composting program, finding a composter to take your scraps can still be a more cost-effective alternative to the traditional disposal methods. Essentially, all you have to do is separate compost-worthy material from the regular "garbage". Composting centers are still gaining ground and therefore not as widespread as traditional landfills, but online resources make it easy to find a compost site near you. If composting sounds like a real possibility for managing restaurant food waste at your establishment, you can find out all the details in our article about restaurant composting.

  • Recycling - Recycling is a simple way to deal with plastic, cardboard, and glass waste that cannot be avoided, and many restaurants already do it to reduce their environmental footprints. For more details about recycling, refer to our restaurant recycling article.

Making Alternative Waste Disposal Work For You

There can be many benefits to using alternative waste disposal methods, both environmental and financial. However, not every method will be a good fit for every restaurant. Luckily, the EPA offers handy tools for monitoring food waste management that can give you an idea of how cost-effective some of the above methods to reduce food waste can be and which ones could be a good fit for your business.

4. Schedule Regular Check-Ins to Monitor Food Waste

It’s important to assess your food waste regularly so that you can constantly monitor trends and implement any changes that may be necessary. No matter how delicious your recipe is, certain dishes can sometimes simply fall out of fashion as customers seek different, newer options. Staff members may move on, so you’ll have new employees to train and manage. There are so many factors that may contribute to increased waste within your carefully thought-out system, so checking in on them is just part of the process of reducing food waste in your restaurant.

What Does it Mean to Be a Zero-Waste Restaurant?

A zero-waste restaurant means that a restaurant does not produce any trash or food waste that has to be taken to a landfill. There are few zero-waste restaurants around the world, but many food businesses are taking steps to implement zero-waste practices to minimize their carbon footprint on the world and embrace a completely eco-friendly ethos.

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Even if your business seems to have a good handle on its production of food waste, it's never a bad idea to dive a little deeper into how much restaurant food waste you produce daily. If your waste production turns out to be more than you thought, try taking some simple steps to better monitor and minimize your waste production. Your community, your planet, and your wallet will thank you for reducing food waste.

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