Waste Not, Want Not: 5 Tips to Reduce Food Waste

For restaurateurs who practice sustainability, the issue of food waste has become a very hot topic recently. In fact, food waste reduction — for the first time ever this year — made the list of top 10 trends on the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 What's Hot Culinary Forecast.

The buzz around food waste certainly is warranted. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than one-third of all food produced globally is wasted. In the United States alone, the agency estimates about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply ends up going to the landfill.

At the same time, more and more consumers want to support restaurants that align with their own values. And one of those values is the idea of reducing waste, whether it is waste of resources, packaging, or the most important restaurant ingredient: food. 

But even though they want to do it, reducing food waste often is challenging for restaurants. To make it a little easier, here are five tips operators can use to begin the journey. 

1. Choose a champion. Find someone who is passionate about reducing food waste who can inspire, engage, and lead your staff. Engaging staff on the issue will help them feel connected to the work and motivate them to make waste reduction part of their daily operations. Once they are on board, waste-reduction practices will become part of the restaurant’s way of doing business and will continue, even as employees come and go.

2. Measure and manage your waste. Begin tracking, measuring, and managing what you throw out each day and why. Tracking can be done in a variety of ways, including using paper waste logs or electronic versions like the EPA’s automated tracking system. Also, a company called LeanPath offers mobile tracking and reporting software that can be installed on a tablet. Measuring your food waste is a great way to help you understand why it is occurring and help you find solutions to reduce it. 

3. Do good by donating. Begin donating leftover food from your restaurant to those in need. Starting a donation program at your restaurant will work to reduce waste, help your community, and improve the environment. It’s a triple win! Remember to follow all food-safety guidelines — package and store the food correctly and track what you’re donating so you can receive tax benefits later. There are many organizations that can help you learn the ins and outs of donating food, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a rescue organization or food bank in your area.

4. Consider composting. Composting isn’t a first step in the waste reduction journey but it can be a great way to divert your food waste from landfills and convert it into nutritious compost that can go back to the farm where your restaurant’s food is grown. To begin a composting program, look for a composter in your area. Tools like the Composting Facility Locator can help. Next, work with your local hauler to transport your food waste. If your current hauler doesn’t provide this service, find one that does. Then execute the program by purchasing compost bins, providing signage, and training your staff to sort and place the correct items in the compost, recycle, and trash bins.

5. Put the customer first. When thinking about reducing waste, it’s important to remember the most important person in the restaurant: the customer. A smart way to reduce waste is to pay attention to what comes back from the customer’s table. By doing this, you can evaluate how much you’re serving or preparing and make changes accordingly. In addition, some restaurants have found that offering half portions or small plates can give customers more options, reduce waste, and save costs. Finally, always offer a to-go container to allow guests to take their leftovers home and encourage them to not waste them. 

Reducing food waste in your restaurant does take some extra effort, but it’s worth it. Waste reduction can lead to cost savings, increased employee engagement, and community and environmental benefits. With these tips, restaurants can make a real difference on this issue.