How to Deal with Food Waste in Restaurants: Sustainable Practices

How to Deal with Food Waste in Restaurants: Sustainable Practices

How to Deal with Food Waste in Restaurants: Sustainable Practices banner

If you’re interested in sustainable practices in the restaurant industry, you may be wondering how to deal with food waste in restaurants as well. What is food waste, and what practices can restaurants adopt to curb it? Read on to gain a better understanding of restaurant food waste and get some inspiring ideas to offset it and make restaurant management more sustainable.

What is Food Waste in Restaurants?

The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food waste as a subcomponent of overall food loss that covers “discarded” food items. “Examples include edible food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste thrown away by consumers,” according to the ERS. Both of these examples of food waste are prevalent among U.S. restaurants.

Understanding the Problem: The Scope of Food Waste

Americans ultimately waste roughly 40 percent of their food. Putting a monetary value on this food waste, the domestic costs come out to roughly $218 billion each year.

Financial Costs of Food Waste

Resulting in bigger orders of necessary ingredients and increased sanitation/disposal fees, food waste can impact a restaurant’s financial bottom line in countless ways. Additionally, it can also lead to higher operating costs.

Environmental Impacts of Food Waste

Beyond its immediate financial costs, food waste contributes to wasted energy, water, and other essential resources up and down the food supply chain. The rotting of organic materials in local landfills also causes dangerous methane deposits.

Reducing Food Waste: Strategies for Every Stage of Operation

After considering its resounding costs, you are probably wondering how to reduce food waste in restaurants. Inventory management, supply storage, kitchen prep, menu design, and customer outreach are just a few general areas of restaurant operations that can keep food waste to a minimum.

Procurement and Inventory Management

When restaurants keep too much perishable food stock, that food will inevitably go to waste. The following practices are essential for restaurants that want to avoid waste by always keeping the right amount of inventory on hand.

Data-Driven Forecasting

To ensure that they can feed their customers without overordering supplies, restaurants must pay close attention to sales records and other relevant data to predict future demand using reliable forecast models. This practice helps in minimizing waste and optimizing inventory management.

Smart Supplier Relationships

From the timeliness of their deliveries to the range of their shipment sizes, suppliers can impact a restaurant’s ability to manage inventory in a variety of ways. At the very least, restaurant owners/managers should look for suppliers that stress sustainable practices and allow for the adjustment of orders as needed.

FIFO System

FIFO, which stands for “first in, first out,” is an inventory management approach that prioritizes using older stock or supplies before newer ones. Perishable food items, in particular, can benefit from FIFO’s emphasis on rapid turnover.

Efficient Storage to Prolong Freshness

Even if you take great care to order the right amount of inventory for your restaurant, your efforts will amount to very little if you fail to effectively store your food for maximum freshness.

Temperature Control

Heat, by and large, leads to spoilage. After researching the ideal storage conditions for all the food items in your restaurant inventory, you must strive to meet those conditions through appropriate refrigeration and freezing.

Labeling and Organization

Clearly visible food supply labels with accurate dating can do wonders for your FIFO efforts. Use these labels to move supplies that will expire sooner toward the front to prevent them from getting misplaced and forgotten about.

Optimized Storage Containers

You cannot overestimate the value of choosing containers that maintain optimum food quality and prevent spoilage. While food products made of grain and fiber may benefit from an airtight container, fruits and vegetables often require a container with ventilation.

Smart Prep and Portion Control

Offering meals with customizable portions and preparing them accordingly, restaurants can provide the precise amount of food that customers demand and reduce the likelihood that uneaten food will be thrown away. This not only helps in minimizing food waste but also allows customers to tailor their meals to their specific dietary needs and preferences. Additionally, it can lead to greater customer satisfaction and repeat business.

Minimize Trimming Waste

From dicing tomatoes to removing excess fat from cuts of meat, waste trimming processes offer significant opportunities to combat food waste. Restaurant managers/owners are wise to teach their kitchen staff members techniques to consider all usable parts of the food they prepare.


For many restaurants, effective food prep means preparing batches of raw ingredients ahead of time. This pre-prepping approach can help you use only the ingredients needed based on data-driven forecasting.

Right-Sized Portions

Beyond allowing customers to order the same menu item in two or more sizes, restaurant owners/managers should closely observe customer eating habits and adjust meal portions accordingly.

Creative Menu Design for Sustainability

Creating a sustainable menu goes beyond adjusting portion sizes. A comprehensive approach involves thoughtful ingredient selection, innovative preparation methods, and an emphasis on seasonal availability. By integrating these elements, you can minimize waste and enhance both the sustainability and profitability of your menu. For instance, sourcing locally grown, in-season produce not only reduces food miles but also ensures fresher, longer-lasting ingredients. Additionally, innovative cooking techniques can transform lesser-used parts of ingredients into gourmet dishes, reducing overall waste.

Seasonal Ingredients

Incorporating seasonal ingredients into your menu is a powerful strategy for sustainability. Seasonal produce is often at its peak in flavor and nutritional value, making dishes more appealing to customers. Additionally, in-season items tend to be more abundant and less expensive, allowing restaurants to reduce costs. By planning menus around seasonal availability, you can also ensure a fresher supply chain and minimize the environmental impact associated with transporting out-of-season produce.

Whole Food Utilization

Maximizing the use of every ingredient in your kitchen can significantly cut down on food waste. This practice, known as whole food utilization, involves finding creative ways to use parts of ingredients that are typically discarded. For example, meat scraps can be turned into rich stocks, and vegetable stems can be blended into vibrant pestos or sauces. Embracing this approach not only reduces waste but also adds unique flavors and textures to your menu, enhancing the dining experience.

“Specials” to Use Up Surplus

Daily or weekly specials are an excellent way to manage surplus ingredients effectively. Instead of letting excess produce or proteins go to waste, turn them into featured dishes that highlight your kitchen’s creativity. This not only helps in reducing waste but also keeps the menu dynamic and exciting for regular patrons. Planning these specials around surplus ingredients ensures that nothing goes to waste, while also offering customers new and varied options to enjoy.

Customer-Facing Waste Reduction

While restaurants can do much to reduce food waste on their own, they can stretch their efforts even further by enlisting their customers in the fight. With that in mind, it makes sense to partner with your customers in the name of waste reduction. When it comes to how to reduce food waste in restaurants, you will find that many conscientious people are eager to understand and happy to help.

Smaller Plates

Take the time to carefully and diligently explain the ways that smaller serving sizes can reduce plate waste while at the same time boosting, rather than reducing, overall customer satisfaction. Customers mindful of their calorie intake can better manage their portions with smaller plates, and tablemates can more easily sample and share a variety of menu items.

Encourage Takeout Containers

Beyond educating customers on portion sizes to minimize leftovers, you can provide suitable takeout containers and enthusiastically suggest that your customers bring their leftovers home.

Educate Customers

There is virtually no end to the ways that a restaurant can inform its customer base about the value of food waste reduction. Consider including subtle messaging about food conservation problems and solutions on restaurant menus or promotional table tents.

Beyond Reduction: What to Do with Unavoidable Waste

From environmental factors that lead to unexpected crop yield production to a sudden loss of refrigeration power during supply-chain storage, countless factors contribute to food waste that is frankly unavoidable. Fortunately, a restaurant can make the most of its spoiled and uneaten food items so they don’t go entirely to waste.


Like many private homeowners and other businesses, restaurants can compost their organic waste to create nutrient-rich soil that can support all kinds of plant life. Beyond onsite composting measures, restaurants also commonly partner with local farms and other organizations that accept compostable food waste.

Food Donation

While it isn’t always feasible and safe, restaurants can connect with food banks and shelters to donate surplus edible food. Among other large restaurant chains, Panera has successfully controlled food waste using this approach.

Food Recovery Apps

Modern technology can serve a powerful tool to help restaurants find practical uses for food that would otherwise go to waste. The free digital app Too Good To Go gives users access to unsold food from restaurants and cafes as well as grocery stores.

How to Start Your Waste Reduction Journey

Regarding how to deal with food waste in restaurants, it’s wise to take the first step toward restaurant food waste reduction by adhering to a few actionable guidelines. Let’s dive into them!

Conduct a Food Waste Audit

To curb your food waste, you must first identify and measure it. Start by recording your baseline food waste data by calculating your incoming and outgoing inventory. You should also consider physically collecting, sorting, and weighing your wasted food items during a designated audit period.

Limit Your Areas of Focus

Although there are countless ways to manage food waste, a wise restaurant owner/manager will start small by making one or two highly manageable changes. Focusing on too many areas at once may result in oversights. It’s also important to consider seasonality and other factors that could impact the outcome.

Engage Your Staff

Effective staff training and open lines of employer/employee communication are key elements for any restaurant that seeks to reduce food waste. By fostering a culture of awareness and responsibility, restaurants can ensure that all team members are actively contributing to waste reduction efforts.

Waste Reduction as Part of a Comprehensive Restaurant Management Education

Eager to learn more about food waste control and other aspects of sensible restaurant management? At Johnson & Wales University, you can pursue a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management or a Master of Science in Food Safety entirely online. Both programs take a comprehensive look at restaurant effective restaurant operations and food supply chain issues. For more information about completing your degree online, complete our Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].

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