Reducing Restaurant Food Waste For The Planet and Your Bottom Line

No one wins when it comes to food waste. Your restaurant loses money, more filth ends up in landfills, then the environment gets the brunt of it all. If you want to improve the way you interact with the planet and mitigate your environmental footprint, all while increasing your profitability, being armed with the knowledge on how to reduce food waste in restaurants properly is the key.

The horrors of food waste

Throwing out food is the same as flushing all the resources used to make it down the drain. This is what forms the garbage mountains of the world. The harboring of waste becomes a catalyst for climate change due to the creation of greenhouse gas called methane, which heats up the atmosphere. Land taken up by food waste also causes the displacement of animals and wildlife. And despite food being produced in excess, there remains no shortage of people around the world (we’re talking millions) that go hungry every single year.

Businesses are responsible for 50 to 60 percent of food waste in the world. Restaurants, in particular, have a hand in the amount of disposable items that we see in landfills. While big changes are being implemented, there’s no denying the challenge of undoing the damage caused by the prolific use of non-biodegradable or non-compostable materials. Plastic, for one, takes up to a thousand years to decompose, which means they take up more space for longer and ultimately end up in the oceans and other animal habitats, which can cause more harm. 

If we don’t make significant changes in the way we operate now, we’re headed towards a catastrophic future. Over the years, however, customers are starting to pay closer attention to the consequences of their dining habits while the industry developed a greater sense of responsibility, accommodating to advance this positive change.

It’s time to get serious about food waste audit

To make real changes to the amount of food waste that your restaurant produces, you need to know how much waste is being produced in the first place and what’s causing it. Only then will you be able to pinpoint specific segments of your operation that need tweaking or overhauling and, in turn, develop and implement solutions. This is the process involved in a food waste audit, which is perhaps the most crucial and revealing part of how to reduce food waste in restaurants.

A proper food waste audit may sound like a chore and a costly one at that. But looking closely at its core and when done the right way, the advantages cannot be ignored. In a recent study by Champions 12.3, it was found that nearly every restaurant that participated is able to save an average of $7 for every $1 they spend in advancing food waste reduction in their kitchen. Within only a year, the restaurants were able to cut food waste by 26% and recoup 75% of their investment.

Reducing Restaurant Food Waste For The Planet and Your Bottom Line

What does a food waste audit entail?

A food waste audit should be performed every month. Depending on the size of your restaurant, you might have to assemble a food audit team. Having a food prep staff member or two on the team would be very helpful because they have first-hand knowledge of how much of specific ingredients are used. At the same time, an employee from the dishwashing station will also be able to offer important information on the waste left on a customer’s plate. Each member of the team should understand the importance of this task and should strive to be consistent and accurate. 

When you have a reliable food waste audit team in place, proceed to organize a system for logging food waste to figure out how much of a specific type of ingredient is discarded and why it is being discarded. All this information should be recorded accurately and in a timely manner. Using a food waste tracking software may be helpful in reducing risks of errors.

Assessing and segregating your waste

Restaurant food waste can be categorized as pre-consumption and post-consumption. The food waste during preparation such as discarded parts of plants or vegetables, bones, spills, and waste from incorrect cooking all fall under the former. The latter includes customer leftovers and any disposables.

Waste assessment and segregation will be part of your daily routine to be taken care of at the end of every shift. Prepare designated buckets or containers to organize waste by type. Some categories to start with include “recyclable” and “compostable”. The sorted waste should then be weighed.

Place separate recycling bins in your restaurant to encourage and facilitate a simpler way for your customers and your staff to participate in the efficient segregation of food and non-food waste. 

We cannot stress enough how crucial it is to have your whole staff on board. It can be easy for them to lose interest and become lax if they don’t have a full understanding of why they are doing it and if you yourself do not monitor their work regularly. Communicate the benefits of assessing food waste with them and become more involved. Don’t forget that the added workload should be reflected on their paycheck as well.

Reducing Restaurant Food Waste For The Planet and Your Bottom Line

Managing your inventory is everything

As a restaurant owner, it might be easy to get caught up with all the big-picture stuff. Don’t forget that inventory management still holds great importance in your overall operation. You should have a clear understanding of how your supply is being used every single day. 

You must know where every single piece of ingredient goes. If an ingredient is depleting like crazy with no positive impact on your bottom line, maybe somebody is using more amounts of it in each dish than they should. Proper inventory management will reveal if employees are making costly mistakes such as not following the prescribed portion or cooking the dish the wrong way so you have to discard the meal brought to the customer and replace it.

A great way to mitigate this is to add a portion control scale to each station in your kitchen where it is needed. Having the right set of commercial equipment and tools that your staff needs to produce orders efficiently and accurately will make a world of difference. 

Are you storing food the right way?

Your refrigerators and freezers should have the right capacity for the amount of inventory you store in your kitchen. Make sure to label items and monitor the temperature inside the units. Commercial refrigeration equipment has made this easier by incorporating a feature that alerts you if the interior temperature is fluctuating or nearing the danger zone. 

Avoid cross-contamination and bacteria growth, which will significantly shorten the shelf life of your inventory. Want to learn more about proper food storage? Check out our article on food safety.

Organize inventory in a way that makes it quick and easy to identify which products should be used first. You might want to keep the freshest items on the right side and move older items on the left as you go. Put a storage chart or a guide at the door of your refrigerator that details the organization system in place.

Can you control waste once the food reaches your customers?

The second you bring the food to their table or they walk out your door with their order, it’s out of your hands. So make the most of the time you have while you can still do something about it.

Start by reflecting on the portions in which you serve your food items. Provide customers what they expect based on how the food item is described on the menu or by your waitstaff. It is the food that your guests expect to get. 

Maybe the servings are too large or you’re giving customers side dishes that they didn’t ask for. You’ll be surprised to know that high amounts of leftovers are often the result of customers only having an appetite for the main dish. So before throwing in additional food items not explicitly mentioned on the menu, ask them if they would like these “extras”. For some types of food, smaller servings might be enough. Consider offering half-orders or extra-large portions. If they are unable to finish everything, encourage them to take leftovers home. 

Reducing Restaurant Food Waste For The Planet and Your Bottom Line

Repurposing can go a long way and so does recycling properly

Find ways to repurpose ingredients. You can give them to staff as free meals. Food scraps can be donated to farmers while excess food can be given to food banks. If you have old bread just sitting there, instead of throwing it out, you can make croutons out of it. Turkey or chicken leftovers? They should make for heartier soups. Also, consider composting food scraps to improve soil in gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown.

Food waste is completely recyclable--from fruits and vegetables to meat, poultry, and seafood, and even eggs, milk, juice, ice cream, and yogurt. A lot of your disposables can also find new, less environmentally harmful life through recycling. Items like plastic bottles, cans, and cartons are good examples of those. For an efficient way to dispose of organic waste, consider working with a food waste management partner. Go the extra mile and seek out recycling programs from where you can purchase products made from recycled materials. 

Being thorough with deliveries and paying extra attention to use-by dates

Ensure that your deliveries are accurate and on-time. Only accept the amount of inventory that you ordered. The volume of your order should, of course, be calculated to be depleted during a specified amount of time. Before even accepting the orders, examine them closely and reject items that have signs of damage or spoilage. Another thing: Your vendor is responsible for keeping the supplies fresh and in the proper temperature before they reach your facility, so items that sat out in the danger zone during transport will only spoil faster. Avoid this by checking the appearance and quality of the delivered items.

A lot of the food from restaurants that end up in the trash are spoiled products! Practice the first in first out system. It wouldn’t hurt to take some time to arrange your inventory so that the products with the closest use-by or best-before dates will be the most accessible. Make it a habit to check the use-by dates every day. 

Use high-quality equipment and get creative

If your staff uses equipment that is easy to use and maintain, there is a higher chance that they will minimize errors and productivity. In the same way, having a refrigerator and freezer with the capacity of your operation will help you extend the shelf life of your ingredients, but make sure to use ingredients with the closest best-before dates. 

In an effort to achieve zero-waste, restaurants are looking for ways to work often-discarded scraps from ingredients into their menu. If you have an executive chef, they should be able to help you make tweaks to your menu if needed.

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