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How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants: 5 Strategies for Restaurant Owners

Are you struggling with how to reduce food waste in restaurants? Discover actionable strategies to decrease waste, enhance profits, and promote sustainability. Dive into our guide for the answers.

4 mins readOctober 09, 2023

Author's Bio:

Amy Fletcher is a freelance writer and researcher with a keen interest in business management. In recent years she has written for various online magazines, journals, and blogs. When she's not writing she enjoys long walks with her daughter and two dogs.

In the fast-paced world of restaurants, food waste can quickly accumulate, impacting both your profit margin and the environment. Dive into our guide on how to reduce food waste in restaurants to discover practical steps to minimize waste, boost your bottom line, and operate more sustainably.

Why Does Food Waste Happen in Restaurants?

Starting a restaurant is an exciting journey. However, like every business, there are challenges to face, and one common challenge is food waste. What leads to all that unused food?

Mismatched supply and demand: Sometimes, it's hard to predict how much of each dish you'll sell.

Large portions: Big portions can look impressive on a plate, but if customers can't finish them, that food ends up in the trash.

Limited shelf life: Fresh ingredients are great for flavor but can spoil quickly. If you don't use them in time, you have to throw them away.

Mistakes in the kitchen: Everyone makes mistakes, especially when learning. Sometimes, a dish doesn't turn out right, and you can't serve it.

Strict appearance standards: You want your dishes to look perfect. But sometimes, this means discarding perfectly good food just because it doesn’t look quite right.

Lack of training: Without proper guidance, staff might not know the best ways to store and handle food, leading to unnecessary waste.

The good news is recognizing these causes is the first step to managing them. Keep reading for some tried-and-true strategies to reduce food waste.

1. Perform a Food Waste Assessment

In the United States, discarded food makes up the biggest portion of materials sent to landfills and incinerators each year. Understanding food waste is essential for any restaurant aiming to improve its operations. By conducting a comprehensive food waste audit, you'll have a clear picture of the exact amount of food being discarded and the potential cost savings for your bottom line. Here’s how to go about it.

STEP 1: Differentiate between avoidable and unavoidable waste (dirty napkins and plastic cutlery will inevitably be discarded, so might not provide actionable insights.) Focus primarily on avoidable food waste, such as excess prepared food, expired ingredients, and unconsumed portions, to identify areas for improvement.

STEP 2: Take detailed notes about the food that gets thrown away. Make a note with a notebook or a computer program. For a week*, before discarding the trash, sort it into categories like:

  • Excess prepared food
  • Return or unsuitably presented dishes
  • Expired ingredients
  • Unconsumed portions

Pro tip: A one-week audit may not be representative, leading to inconclusive results and potentially misguided decisions. Extend the duration of the audit or conduct audits periodically throughout the year to account for variations in customer behavior, menu changes, and seasonal fluctuations. Use the gathered data to identify consistent patterns rather than making decisions based on anomalies.

STEP 3: Weigh each sorted pile and record the weights.

STEP 4: Multiplying these weights by the days your restaurant operates annually will give you a snapshot of yearly waste.

STEP 5: Analyze the results. Categories with heavier weights indicate areas needing attention. For instance, excessive meat or produce waste might signal unpopular menu items, inefficient preparation techniques, or quality issues from suppliers. With this audit, you'll uncover actionable insights to refine your restaurant's operations, from menu choices to supplier selection.

Once you've gathered a good amount of data, set aside time, perhaps monthly or quarterly, to analyze your findings:

• Discuss the most common items that end up wasted.

• Reflect on the possible reasons behind the waste patterns.

• Consider changes in sourcing, preparation, or presentation that might alleviate the waste.

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2. Optimize Purchasing and Stocking Practices

Ordering the right amount of food and managing inventory efficiently is a surefire way to reduce waste.

Leverage Inventory Days on Hand (DOH)

Inventory days on hand (DOH) is a crucial metric for restaurants. It shows how many days a restaurant takes to deplete its inventory. When you know how to use DOH, you can help prevent overstocking or understocking, reducing waste.

Here is how to determine and use DOH:

Gather necessary data: To calculate DOH, you'll need the average inventory value and the cost of goods sold (COGS) for a specific period.

Calculate DOH: To calculate DOH, use the formula: DOH = average inventory / (COGS / number of days in the period). For instance, if you're calculating DOH for a month, use 30 for the number of days.

Analyze the result: Once you have your DOH figure, compare it against industry benchmarks or your past records. If your DOH is too high, it might indicate overstocking.

Review suppliers: If your DOH fluctuates widely or is consistently too high or too low, consider reviewing your supplier agreements. You might need more frequent deliveries or smaller batches to keep your inventory fresher and reduce wastage.

Regularly update DOH calculations: The restaurant industry can be highly dynamic, with demand patterns changing due to seasons, events, or even recent reviews. Regularly updating your DOH calculations, perhaps monthly or quarterly, can help you stay ahead of these shifts.

Communicate with kitchen staff: Ensure your kitchen staff understands the importance of inventory rotation and how it relates to DOH.

Incorporate technology: Many inventory management tools for restaurants automatically calculate DOH, track inventory in real time, and suggest future orders based on predictive analytics.

Set regular inventory checks: For accurate DOH calculations, set a regular schedule for physical inventory checks.

Avoid Overstocking

While it's tempting to stock up, especially when suppliers offer deals, over-ordering can lead to spoilage and waste. Base orders on accurate sales forecasts and actual needs, adjusting for seasonal fluctuations or special events.

Your Stock-Storing Techniques

Temperature Control

Storing perishables at the right temperature and in the right conditions extends their shelf life. Note these three golden rules for temperature control:

  • Refrigeration: Ensure that your refrigerator is set at or below 40°F (4°C) to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
  • Freezing: Set freezers at 0°F (-18°C) or lower to properly preserve frozen goods.
  • Regular Monitoring: Use appliance thermometers to monitor temperatures regularly and ensure they remain consistent.

First In, First Out

The First In, First Out (FIFO) method, where older stock is used before new stock, ensures that food doesn’t expire before you can use it. You can keep track of this if you have an inventory tracking system in place, ideally integrated into your Point Of Sale (POS) System. Here are 4 tips to help you implement FIFO:

  1. Labeling: Clearly label all items with their receiving date and expiration date. Use color-coded labels or a consistent marking system for easy identification.

  1. Shelving Arrangement: When restocking, place new items behind the older stock on the shelves. This way, older items are used first, reducing the risk of spoilage.

  1. Staff Training: Educate all kitchen staff on the FIFO method and its importance. Ensure everyone is diligent in following this practice for every delivery and during food preparation.

  1. Regular Checks: Conduct regular checks to ensure FIFO is being practiced correctly and to identify any items nearing their expiration date.

  1. Zoning: Organize the refrigerator and storage areas into specific zones for different food categories (dairy, meat, produce, etc.). This helps staff locate items quickly.

  1. Clear Visibility: Arrange items so that labels are easily visible. Avoid stacking items in a way that obscures labels.

  1. Shelf Spacing: Adjust shelf spacing to accommodate the size of the products and to prevent overcrowding. This helps in maintaining good airflow and temperature consistency.

  1. Use of Storage Containers: Utilize clear storage containers where possible to easily identify contents. Avoid using opaque containers that hide contents.

  1. List of Contents: Place a list of contents on the door of the refrigerator or storage cabinet for quick reference, indicating where each category of items is located.
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3. Rethink Your Menu Offerings

Each dish on your menu affects your waste levels. Some may lead to more waste because of perishable ingredients, complex preparations, or low popularity. To optimize your menu use versatile ingredients. Opt for ingredients that can be used across multiple dishes to reduce the chances of any ingredient going unused.

Here are some examples of versatile ingredients along with the types of dishes they can be used to make:

Chicken BreastGrilled chicken salads, chicken sandwiches, chicken pasta, stir-fries, chicken tacos, and chicken curry.Can be grilled, baked, poached, or fried and used in various cuisines.
RiceFried rice, rice bowls, pilaf, risotto, rice pudding, and sushi.Serves as a base for many dishes, complements various proteins and vegetables, and can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.
EggsOmelets, quiches, frittatas, egg sandwiches, egg fried rice, and egg salads.Can be cooked in numerous ways, used as a binding agent in baking, and incorporated into breakfast, lunch, or dinner dishes.
Canned TomatoesMarinara sauce, tomato soup, chili, shakshuka, and salsa.Serve as a base for sauces, soups, and stews, and can be used in both hot and cold preparations.
PastaSpaghetti Bolognese, pasta salads, macaroni and cheese, pasta primavera, and lasagna.Available in various shapes and sizes, pairs well with different sauces and ingredients, and can be used in both hot and cold dishes.
BeansBean soups, chili, bean salads, hummus, and burritos.Available canned or dried, high in protein and fiber, and can be used in salads, soups, and spreads.
PotatoesMashed potatoes, baked potatoes, fries, potato salads, and hash browns.Can be baked, boiled, fried, or roasted and used as a side dish, main dish, or breakfast item.
Bell PeppersStuffed peppers, fajitas, stir-fries, omelets, and salads.Can be eaten raw or cooked, used in various cuisines, and adds color and flavor to dishes.
Greek YogurtSmoothies, parfaits, dips, dressings, and marinades.Can be used as a base for sauces and dressings, a substitute for sour cream, and in sweet and savory dishes.
Cheese (e.g., Mozzarella, Cheddar)Pizzas, grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, cheese platters, and salads.Can be used as a topping, filling, or standalone dish, and pairs well with various ingredients.
Garlic and OnionsStir-fries, sauces, soups, marinades, and sautés.Serve as a base flavor for a wide range of dishes and can be used raw, sautéed, roasted, or fried.
Leafy Greens (e.g., Spinach, Kale)Salads, smoothies, sautéed greens, soups, and sandwiches.Can be eaten raw or cooked, used as a main or side dish, and incorporated into a variety of cuisines.


4. Find Creative Avenues for Unused Ingredients

Today's restaurants do more than just serve delicious food. People everywhere care about helping the planet and community. With that in mind, restaurants are finding smart ways to use leftover food. This not only helps save money by reducing waste, but it also helps the environment, making customers happy.

Share Surplus Food With Local Charities

Unsold food can provide a chance to do good. Donating to local charities or food banks lets the food fulfill its primary purpose of feeding people. These actions reduce food waste and importantly help fight hunger in our local communities.

Identify local charities in your state that accept food donations. Enter your state in the location dropdown here to find your local charities.

There are additional benefits of donating unsold food:

Community engagement: Establishments can build a positive reputation and relationship with the local community. Even if they don’t return to your restaurant as paying customers, they’ll spread the name of your restaurant in a positive way across the community.

Tax deductions: In many jurisdictions, businesses can receive tax benefits for charitable donations, including unsold food items. For more information check out these resources:

IRS Charitable Contribution Deductions. The IRS provides guidelines on how businesses can claim deductions for charitable contributions, including the donation of food inventory. It outlines the requirements, limitations, and documentation needed for claiming deductions.

Tax Benefits of Food Donations. Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, provides information on the tax benefits of donating food, including an overview of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, which expanded the deduction for food inventory donations.

Turn Meal Prep Into Employee Perks

Your staff is an integral part of your restaurant's success. Offering meals from unsold or surplus food not only serves as a token of appreciation but also effectively reduces waste. By using ingredients or dishes that didn’t sell during the day, restaurants can create nutritious meals for their team.

Designate a section of the kitchen or storage area for food items meant for staff meals. Ensure that the food used for staff meals is rotated regularly to maintain freshness. And don't forget to engage with your staff. Ask them about their preferences, and take feedback on the meals provided. This can lead to even better utilization of unsold food.

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5. Adopt a Green Approach to Restaurant Waste

The essence of a modern, eco-conscious restaurant extends beyond the quality of dishes it serves. It also encompasses the practices it adopts for waste management. Here are some action steps for effective recycling:

Set up clear signage: Ensure that bins are well-labeled so that staff and customers can easily segregate waste. Make sure to have a designated bin for food waste.

Educate staff: Training sessions can help employees understand what can and cannot be recycled, ensuring a more efficient recycling process.

Liaise with suppliers: Many suppliers are open to taking back packaging for reuse. This not only reduces waste but can also lead to cost savings.

Regularly review: Periodically assess your recycling habits. Can you recycle more? Are there better, more sustainable packaging options available?

McDonalds is often hailed as a champion in their green recycling practices:

  • McDonald’s liaises with suppliers to source sustainable and certified products, such as fish, espresso beans, and packaging materials.

  • It is also a founding member of groups committed to reusable packaging innovation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, indicating collaboration with various stakeholders, potentially including suppliers.

  • McDonald’s has shown progress in sustainability over the years, such as increasing the percentage of sustainable fiber-based packaging from 92% in 2019 to 99.6%.

  • The company also has goals for future improvements, such as aiming for 100% sustainable packaging by 2025 and a 36% reduction in emissions by 2030, indicating regular reviews and adjustments of its sustainability practices.


McDonalds goes green

Composting turns organic waste, which would otherwise end up in a landfill, into nutrient-rich soil, closing the loop in the food cycle. It's an excellent way for restaurants to reduce their environmental impact while also benefitting local agriculture.

Organic waste in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting prevents this, contributing to the fight against climate change. To initiate composting in your restaurant:

  1. Designate a compost area: If space allows, set aside an area outside your restaurant for composting. Begin with simple bins and, as you get more accustomed to the process, consider larger composting setups.

  1. Partner with local entities: For restaurants with limited space, collaborating with local farms or composting services can offer an easy solution. They can regularly pick up your organic waste and turn it into compost.

  1. Educate and train: Like recycling, composting also requires knowledge. Ensure that your team knows what can be composted and how to handle organic waste properly.


  1. Optimize purchasing and stocking: Use the Inventory Days on Hand (DOH) metric to avoid overstocking and understocking. Regularly update DOH calculations to match the dynamic restaurant industry.

  1. Perfect stock-storing techniques: Maintain appropriate temperatures in refrigerators and freezers. Implement the First In, First Out (FIFO) method and train staff on its importance.

  1. Rethink your menu: Incorporate versatile ingredients that can be used in various dishes, like chicken breast, rice, and beans, to reduce ingredient wastage.

  1. Find creative uses for unused ingredients: Donate unsold food to local charities for community goodwill and potential tax benefits. Use leftover food for staff meals as an appreciation gesture.

  1. Adopt green waste practices: Set up clear, labeled bins for segregation of waste, including designated food waste bins.

  1. Educate your team: Regular training sessions can ensure staff members are knowledgeable about recycling and composting practices.

  1. Engage suppliers for sustainable practices: Collaborate with suppliers on sustainable sourcing and consider returning packaging for reuse.

  1. Look to industry leaders: Draw inspiration from companies like McDonald’s, which has robust sustainability practices and liaises with suppliers for certified products.

9.__ Embrace composting__: Set up a compost area within your restaurant or partner with local farms and composting services to manage organic waste.

  1. Regularly review practices: Periodically assess and adjust waste management and recycling habits for continuous improvement.

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