The Industry

Reducing Food Waste: 11 Strategies Any Restaurant Can Use

Reducing food waste is great for your great way to protect your bottom line. Not sure where to start? No worries! Here are 11 strategies to get you started with reducing food waste at your restaurant.

Here's a shocking statistic that might not actually be surprising to restaurateurs: The U.S. sends more food to landfills than any other single material.

Everyone in the restaurant industry knows that food waste is a big problem. But how big? Well, in the U.S., bigger than you might have even thought.



Americans throw away more food than any other country in the world, with nearly 80 billion pounds of it going to waste each year. That's between 30 and 40 percent of the entire food supply in the country. The impact of all that waste goes far beyond the cost of food ending up in the trash.

Food waste is harmful to the environment—dumping food in landfills produces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. It's also harmful to society—​​more than 38 million people  in the United States are food insecure, and that number has soared as a result of the pandemic. Wasted food also results in $2 billion in lost profits for restaurants annually.

But on the other side of the issue is the customers. A recent study by Unilever showed that 72 percent of U.S. diners care about how restaurants handle their food waste, and 47 percent would be willing to spend more to eat at a restaurant that takes concrete steps toward reducing its food waste footprint.

In other words, reducing food waste should be a huge priority for restaurants because of the impact it can have on the environment, the world, guests, and their bottom line.

If you're looking for actionable ways to reduce your restaurant's food waste this year, read on. This step-by-step guide will help you conduct an audit of your current levels of food waste, and then give you 11 practical tips for cutting down on waste.

How to Conduct a Food Waste Audit

Before you make any changes that will reduce food waste at your restaurant, the first step is to get a clear picture of how big a problem you have. That requires a food waste audit, which will tell you exactly how much food (and other materials) you're wasting and where it's all coming from.

Here's how to do your first food waste audit.

Step 1: Create a Food Log System


The first step in your audit is creating a food logging system, which should include all relevant categories for the food products your restaurant sells, as well as other types of waste you want to track or reduce. 

Some ideas include:

  • Paper products
  • Takeout containers
  • Produce
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Plastic products
  • Post-consumer waste (food loss that comes from dishes guests send back or parts of their meals they don't eat or take home with them)

Keep in mind that this list is just a starting point. You can and should fine-tune that list to include any types of waste your restaurant is more likely to produce based on the kind of restaurant it is and the types of dishes you serve.

Step 2: Go Through the Trash

Yes, this step will require rolling up your sleeves and getting a little dirty. But the only way to truly know how much waste your restaurant is creating is to measure it yourself.

After you create your food logging system, it's time to fill it out. Choose a period of time to track your waste (one week is probably plenty). During that time, go through your restaurant's trash every day and separate everything into the categories you made for your log. Document everything you find in the trash.

It may also be helpful to try to track waste during regular shifts, and then compare that log to what you find in the trash at the end of the day. This can help you determine whether employees at your restaurant are cognizant of what they're wasting, or if things are getting thrown away without anyone paying attention.


11 Steps for Reducing Food Waste in Restaurants

Once you know what food waste looks like in your restaurant, it's time for food waste reduction. These 11 tips should help you cut down on the amount of food waste your restaurant produces over time.

Get All Your Staff On Board

First things first: Any initiatives to reduce food waste won't be as successful unless all your staff is on board. Make sure everyone is aware that you're making efforts to cut down on waste, and communicate openly with all employees about what that means, and any changes that will occur to the procedures that they're used to. Your employees should be thoroughly trained on any new procedures so they know exactly how to execute your waste reduction plans.

Don't Over-Prep


An important part of every day's food service is the prep work that happens before each shift. And an important part of reducing food waste is trying to only prep what you need, especially when it comes to fresh foods that will lose their quality if they're left prepped for too long (think avocados that brown once they're cut, or cucumbers that begin to get soggy after they're grated).

It can be difficult to estimate exactly how much prep work is needed for each meal service, but if your restaurant has the staff for it, you can always prep more as you go. That way, it's less likely that you'll end up throwing away prepped food at the end of the day.

Use FIFO

FIFO stands for "first in, first out," which is a philosophy of inventory management that's pretty much what it sounds like: Using your oldest ingredients and supplies before you use newer ones. This helps ensure you use up food items before their best before or expiration date.

But FIFO is just one part of a larger strategy you should have for inventory management. Your food storage areas should be well organized, with food labels and date labeling clearly visible so that even at a glance, you can tell what items you have, what needs to be used up, and when.

Store Food Properly

On the same note as keeping your food storage area well organized, you should also ensure that every item in it is stored correctly. This will not only help maximize the shelf life of your inventory to reduce waste, but is an important part of food safety as well.

Store food in proper, sealed containers. Perishables like fresh fruits and veggies should be kept at the proper temperature to prevent spoilage. Keep raw meats separate from other foods, and keep your storage areas clean and free of mold, pests, and any other problems that would require you to throw away ingredients.

Practice Good Inventory Management

Ingredient and supply orders shouldn't necessarily be exactly the same each week. A key step in reducing food waste is practicing flexible inventory management, which means only ordering more of an ingredient or item when you need it, not just because you place orders at regular intervals. 

Practicing good inventory management takes more work (or some decent software to help you automate the process). But it's well worth it both for reducing food waste and for keeping better track of your restaurant's inventory, which can help you better understand demand, whether any dishes are underperforming, how to increase your profit margins, and more.

Design Your Menu to Reduce Waste

One way to reduce wasted food is to be deliberate with your menu design.

Try to offer multiple dishes that reuse some of the same ingredients. Similarly, remove items from your menu if they don't sell well, so you don't need to keep ingredients for them on hand and risk having them go bad without being used.

Another important part of your menu design is the descriptions for each dish—make sure they're clear and well-written so guests know exactly what they're ordering. This will reduce the likelihood that dishes get sent back to the kitchen and thrown away.

Offer Specials to Use Up Ingredients

If you accidentally end up with ingredients that are nearing their expiration date and need to be used up quickly, consider tasking your chef with creating a special that utilizes those ingredients. This is a great way to regularly use up supplies that are about to go bad.

You can also offer a regular menu item that's good for using up fresh and extremely perishable ingredients. If you run a breakfast restaurant or cafe, for example, weekly rotating flavors of smoothies can be a great way to use up fruits (and even veggies) that are about to turn.

Be Mindful of Portion Sizes



Think back to when you did your waste audit. Did you find that most food waste was coming from the kitchen or your inventory? Or did you see a lot of post-consumer waste, meaning you threw away a lot of food that guests ordered, but didn't eat?

If guests are having a hard time finishing their meals, consider offering smaller portions. When there's less food on the plate, chances are better that the guest will be able to finish it all, and even if they don't, there will be less food for you to throw away if they opt not to take their leftovers home.

Get Creative with Scraps

There are so many ways to utilize food scraps that would otherwise go into the trash.

From potato peels to vegetable scraps to coffee grounds, starting a compost bin outside your kitchen provides an opportunity to turn these materials that would have gone in the trash into nutrient-rich soil. Even better if your restaurant grows some of its own produce in an on-site garden and can use the compost itself.

If that's not an option, look into programs in your area that use restaurant leftovers to make animal feed. You might be surprised at how many options you have for making good use of food scraps that seem destined for the trash bin.

Give Away Leftovers

If you find yourself with leftover, edible food, look for creative ways to use that up, too. Some can likely be donated to food banks or other charities. Your staff may even appreciate being able to take home some leftover food that would otherwise be thrown away.

Rethink Your To-Go Options



One area of restaurant waste that you might not have considered so far is the waste your restaurant produces off your property. When guests take their uneaten food home from your restaurant—or when they order delivery or takeout—do they then throw away plastic containers and cutlery, paper waste, and other items?

You can't control whether guests throw away leftover food. But you can offer them more eco-friendly to-go items, like compostable takeout containers and biodegradable cutlery. This is a way for your restaurant to reduce its entire impact on the planet, thinking bigger than just wasted food.

Reducing Food Waste Is a Long-Term Commitment

Once you have a plan in place to reduce waste, try to stick with it for a while, and then do another waste audit. This is how you'll see if your waste reduction efforts are successful.

Over time, you can streamline these processes and add new ones. There's no such thing as a completely waste-free restaurant, but with time and dedication, your can get closer.

Want more industry news and best practices?

Subscribe to Popmenu’s Front of House blog.