Reporting & Analytics

How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants: 16 Practical Tips

By Katherine Pendrill

How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants

Running a foodservice operation involves a lot of moving parts. And one area that is often overlooked is the question of how to reduce food waste in restaurants.

Food waste costs restaurants a staggering $162 billion per year, and in America alone, restaurants generate as much as 33 billion pounds of food waste per year. This is a serious issue on its own, but becomes even more concerning when you consider that an estimated 50 million Americans face food insecurity (up from 35 million before the COVID-19 pandemic).

However, the situation isn’t all doom and gloom. With a better understanding of how to reduce food waste in restaurants, restaurateurs can play a crucial role in solving this problem.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to kick restaurant food waste to the curb, including:

  • Different types of restaurant food waste
  • 16 restaurant waste management tips
  • The benefits of reducing food waste in your restaurant

Different Types of Restaurant Food Waste

The first step in learning how to reduce food waste in restaurants is simply understanding the two types of food waste you’ll encounter.

  • Pre-Consumer Waste: This includes all of the food wasted in your restaurant before it ever even reaches your guests. For example, if your new line cook gets a little too enthusiastic on the grill and burns a steak that can no longer be served, this is pre-consumer waste. It accounts for 4 to 10% of restaurant food waste.
  • Post-Consumer Waste: This includes all food that gets thrown out after it reaches your customers, and is by far the larger category of restaurant food waste. Guests typically leave 17% of their food uneaten, and of those leftovers, more than half get left behind on the table at your restaurant. Several factors can cause post-consumer waste, and we’ll dig into how to tackle those next.

Determining how much of your food waste falls into these two buckets can help you identify exactly what is getting thrown out and why. And with a better understanding of your pre- and post-consumer waste, you can determine the right restaurant waste management solutions for your restaurant, which we’ll cover below.

Chef cutting vegetables in a restaurant kitchen.

How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants: 16 Tips

Here are 16 restaurant waste management strategies to employ in your venue.

1. Conduct a Food Waste Audit

As mentioned above, knowing how to reduce food waste in restaurants requires you to first find out where your waste is coming from. The best way to do this is to create a food waste tracker (this can be as simple as a hard copy sheet of paper) to account for all of your front- and back-of-house waste for a given period of time, such as one week. Include the item plus its weight or amount, how it was wasted, the date and time, and the staff member’s name who reported it.

Next, if you’ve been following restaurant inventory best practices, you should be able to compare the information on your food waste tracker with data from your POS system’s inventory reports to pinpoint where your waste is coming from.

2. Promote Sustainable Preparation

Another useful restaurant waste management strategy is to promote sustainable preparation and aim to run a sustainable restaurant more generally. First and foremost, sustainable practices are good for the environment. Another bonus? The number of Americans who make food and beverage choices based on sustainability has increased by 23% since 2019, so implementing environmentally friendly practices at your restaurant is sure to be a crowd-pleasing choice.

Training your employees on proper food preparation techniques is an easy and effective way to ensure perfectly good food doesn’t end up as scraps. For example, wash all of your fruits and vegetables at the same time to conserve water, and use a thaw rack instead of water to thaw frozen food.

3. Avoid Over-Preparing

Your specific inventory needs will vary depending on the time of year and even the weekday. For example, if your restaurant is located on the beachfront in a tourist town, you’ll want to have more food on hand during the summer months and especially on weekends, when people are flocking to the water. Alternatively, if you’re based in your city’s business district, weekday lunch hour may be your time to shine.

Use your POS reports to forecast how busy your restaurant will be at different times and prepare accordingly, instead of always over-prepping. This way, at the end of the night, you won’t have to throw out any extra salad toppings you chopped during prep.

4. Improve Your Inventory Management

We’ve given you the grim numbers on food waste, but did you know that spilled or wasted booze can equate to anywhere from 2 to 23% in lost sales? This is why mastering restaurant inventory management for all of your food and beverage items is a critical part of learning how to reduce food waste in restaurants. 

One restaurant waste management pro tip is to use the first-in, first-out (FIFO) method to rotate your inventory, bringing older items to the front of your storage areas so you ensure they get used before they spoil. Labeling all of your items with use-by dates will make this a breeze. You should also use inventory management software to help you stay organized.

Worker doing inventory at a bakery.

5. Store Food Properly

You can “Marie Kondo” your fridge until it’s meticulously stocked, but no level of organization can save your restaurant’s food from being stored at the wrong temperature. Your refrigerator temperature should be at or below 40° F, and never allow foods that require refrigeration (including leftovers that were once hot) to sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Frozen foods should be stored at 0° F.

Be diligent about following these temperature guides, and create a backup plan for what to do if things go wrong – for example, how to handle perishables if there’s a power outage.

6. Calculate and Control Inventory Days on Hand

One way to improve your inventory management is by familiarizing yourself with the calculation for inventory days on hand (DOH), and using it to control what and how much of each item you’re ordering from vendors.

DOH refers to how long an item has been in storage (bag of potatoes on the back shelf, we’re looking at you). To calculate DOH, all you have to do is find the average number of days you hold inventory before selling it. A POS system and robust inventory tracking practice will set you up for success.

7. Repurpose Ingredients

It’s time to get creative! This is the fun part of knowing how to reduce food waste in restaurants. Work with your kitchen staff to find innovative ways to repurpose food that would otherwise go to waste, like turning day-old bread into croutons. 

Remember, many of your restaurant’s customers are likely interested in sustainability, so you can even involve them in this process by taking to social media to find out how they repurpose ingredients in their own kitchens at home. Run a contest and offer the winner a free meal to build brand loyalty. Helping the planet while delighting your guests are two of the major benefits of reducing food waste.

8. Identify Multi-Use Menu Items

Another important restaurant waste management tip is to figure out which of your ingredients can be cross-used in multiple dishes, such as items you stock regularly and/or in large quantities. This will help you take advantage of the cost savings of buying in bulk, while ensuring that none of your ingredients spoil because they don’t get used often enough. 

Keep in mind that, having too many menu items can make the process of identifying multi-use items difficult. A great way to streamline this activity is by switching to a small menu at your restaurant, which will be easier to manage.

9. Order In-Season

Ingredients that are out of season (think peaches in winter if you live in Minnesota) may spoil quickly, so try to avoid using these items in your dishes. Ordering in-season is not only a smart move to minimize food waste in your restaurant, but it also means you’ll likely be sourcing ingredients from closer to home – and who doesn’t love to support local producers?

10. Reduce Portion Sizes

We hope you brought your appetite to this party, because in 2017, the average restaurant portion size in the U.S. was anywhere from two to eight times bigger than USDA or FDA standard servings. This is one of the major drivers of post-consumer food waste. As a restaurateur, implementing strategies such as using smaller plates or serving less meat can help decrease portion sizes and in turn, waste.

11. Track the Popularity of Your Dishes

Having the best restaurant isn’t a popularity contest, except when it is. Part of learning how to reduce food waste in restaurants involves using a menu management system to identify unpopular dishes. Then, be ruthless and remove these poorly selling items from your menu. No hard feelings, though! Just less pre-consumer food waste.

12. Promote Weekly Specials

Another way to get creative while cutting down on food waste is to come up with ideas for specials that feature ingredients you need to use before they spoil. Take the opportunity to build team culture and involve your staff in the experience. Give out a prize to the cook who comes up with the most weekly special ideas, or the server who is able to sell the most specials in a night.

Two meat plate with salad leaves and summer salad in waiter's hand.

13. Offer Takeout Containers

We’ve likely all had the experience of being on our way home from a restaurant when we realize we left our takeout container on the table. Help prevent post-consumer waste like this by making it easy for guests to take uneaten food home. Encourage guests to take a doggy bag of leftovers, and always keep proper takeout containers on hand – nowadays you can even get sustainable options.

14. Offer Staff Meals

Staff meals are undoubtedly one of the best perks of working at a restaurant. But, have you ever thought that they can also help you minimize food waste? Get creative and use leftover ingredients to make meals for employees. This way, no one’s hangry at work and you have the peace of mind of knowing you’re reducing your waste. It’s a win-win!

15. Donate Leftovers to Charity

Sometimes, even after you’ve followed all of the restaurant waste management tips we’ve covered above, you’ll find that you still have extra food in storage. If this food is safe to eat and you’ve already whipped up meals for your staff, see if you can find a local charity to donate the items to.

You can even make it official and set up a partnership with an organization that can regularly distribute your extra food to those in need. This is easy to do with Sustainable America’s handy Food Rescue Locator, which helps connect businesses with local organizations specializing in food redistribution – all you need to do is enter your ZIP code.

16. Compost Whenever Possible

Building on the idea of leveraging partnerships to decrease restaurant food waste, if you work with local suppliers, ask if you can provide them with compost. Or, you can even compost on-site if you have enough space (and if it’s permitted by your local health authority). 

The Benefits of Reducing Food Waste in Your Restaurant

Your notebook should now be brimming with ideas for how to reduce food waste in restaurants – and how to put them into practice ASAP. After all, cutting down on food waste can help boost your bottom line by decreasing operating costs by up to 30%. That’s welcome news to any restaurateur, especially in the age of COVID-19 when budgets are tight.

But, this isn’t all about dollars and cents. As you’ve learned, decreasing food waste is also good for the environment. This is a strong selling point for eco-conscious customers, especially those in the millennial age group. According to The National Restaurant Association, 58% of millennials gravitate toward restaurants that source sustainable food.

And lastly, one of the biggest benefits of reducing food waste is that you can help people in your community who are struggling with food insecurity. Need we say more?

Get the Tech You Need to Track Food Waste

We’ve covered different types of restaurant food waste, 16 restaurant waste management tips, and the benefits of reducing food waste in your restaurant. If you’re ready to put everything you’ve learned into practice, be sure you have a POS system and inventory management system that can support you. Find out how TouchBistro’s restaurant POS system can help.

Photo of Katherine Pendrill
by Katherine Pendrill

Katherine is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, where she writes about trending topics in food and restaurants. The opposite of a picky eater, she’ll try (almost) anything at least once. Whether it’s chowing down on camel burgers in Morocco or snacking on octopus dumplings in Japan, she’s always up for new food experiences.

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