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Understanding the Food Waste Problem in the Food and Bev Industry

The problem of food waste in restaurants is more widespread and pervasive than most consumers realize. Restaurants in the U.S. generate an estimated 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste every year — a sobering statistic, but one that will unfortunately be unsurprising to anyone who’s worked in or managed a restaurant kitchen. 

So, how can restaurants get a handle on their food waste problems? It’s a problem without a simple answer, but there are many steps that kitchen managers, chefs and line cooks alike can take to improve their kitchens’ sustainability by reducing wasted food. 

Sources of Food Waste

Most types of food waste look the same once they’re in a black garbage bag, but how they get there matters.One of the key points of understanding to prevent food waste is understanding the multiple paths of food waste that affect restaurant kitchens:

  1. Plate Waste: Prepared food that goes uneaten
  2. Spoilage: Food that goes bad before it can be prepared or served
  3. Scraps: Rinds, peels, bones, gristle and other parts of food items that are generally inedible

The first two are the main types of food waste in restaurant kitchens, so they’re the ones that we’ll examine most closely. However, even scraps can be recovered through composting (which we’ll discuss later on). 

How Much Food Is Your Restaurant Wasting?

Some restaurants weigh their garbage bags to get an approximate figure of how much they throw away, although this includes trash from many sources other than food waste. If it’s feasible to use a separate can for food waste, this method can be more accurate. Some restaurants use black trash bags for one type of trash and clear trash bags for another, making it easy to remember. 

Generally, the best way to start is by making sure your inventory systems include methods of tracking spoilage using a food waste logbook. Kitchen managers, chefs and anyone else responsible for taking inventory should track anything thrown away for expiration date or poor quality. These numbers are important for rooting out waste in your supply chain. 

Plate waste can be tougher to track, so start by tracking refires. Remaking orders is a massive waste of food since you’ll often have to use double the resources for a single item. When it comes to meals that guests don’t finish, the most effective method is to ask front of house (FOH) staff to formally or informally track when food goes uneaten. This isn’t an exact science, so work with your FOH staff to find out what’s easiest for them. 

Tracking inedible scraps generally isn’t necessary, but it can be an opportunity for leadership in the kitchen. If your back of house employees notice that some people aren’t using resources efficiently, ask them to step up and help their coworkers learn to prepare food with minimal waste. 

Can Your Supplier Help You Reduce Food Waste?

Food waste sometimes originates in how the restaurant and the supplier interact. For example, you might learn that your kitchen is frequently throwing away an item because it’s usually close to the expiration date when you receive it. Or, kitchen staff might frequently find that food from a particular supplier is not up to house standards and throw it away. 

Supply chain interventions are one of the most effective ways to stop waste at its source. Moreover, it’s often possible to detect these problems just through inventory tracking and having kitchen staff note when they have to discard food. Track these numbers and use them in negotiating with suppliers to iron out freshness and quality issues. 

The problem of food waste in restaurants is more widespread and pervasive than most consumers realize. Restaurants
Source: Wanessa_p/

Improving Kitchen Practices

Other food waste problems originate in back of house practices. Refires, for example, can indicate anything from sub-standard ingredients to incorrect preparation. Track these problems to their source by working with your kitchen staff to identify where things are going wrong. 

Your restaurant might also need to adjust its portion sizes. Sometimes, portions are simply too large for the average guest to finish in one sitting. If guests almost always ask for a box with certain dishes, think about reducing the portion size or adding a small-size option for guests who aren’t as hungry. It’s also possible that employees are using the wrong portions when prepping.

Food Donation Options for Restaurants

Many restaurants donate uneaten food to local charity or mutual aid organizations. Dry goods and other non-perishables are easy to donate to a local food pantry. If you have fresh food that you need to donate, try getting in touch with a local food rescue organization. 

It can take time to get familiar with the resources available for food donation, so try to get your organization into the habit. Schedule a regular pickup time if you know there are certain times when you typically have excess food. Under certain circumstances, your restaurant might even be eligible for tax benefits from donating surplus food. 

Can Your Restaurant Start Composting?

Restaurants are increasingly setting up composting programs to divert their food waste into a more eco-friendly stream. Composting uses natural decay processes to break down your food waste into nutrient-rich material that makes an excellent soil additive. Local community gardens often need compost, and many areas have compost-share services that will connect you with gardeners. 

It’s vital to know exactly what you can and can’t compost before you start a compost for your restaurant kitchen. Generally, the majority of your compost should be fruits, veggies and grains, along with certain items like coffee grounds and eggshells. Avoid composting meat and dairy, and try to keep your compost in an area where guests won’t have to smell it. 

If you can’t compost, there are other ways to reuse food scraps in a sustainable way. Some restaurants, for example, use bones from meat to make stocks and broths. Look into zero waste kitchens for more information on how to do this. 

We all have a responsibility to reduce food waste in our homes and businesses — and restaurants are no exception. Moreover, a restaurant with a low-waste kitchen is a restaurant that’s saving money, so there are multiple important reasons for kitchen managers and chefs to get serious about reducing waste! 

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