Question: I’m looking to cut my operating costs, and I know that reducing the amount of food waste in my kitchen can help. How do I do that?

Answer: Great question. Experts estimate that 4%-10% of food purchased in a commercial foodservice facility is thrown out before it ever reaches a guest. If you spend $100,000 on food in a year, that’s up to $10,000 going straight to the trash.

Food waste is a massive problem throughout the world, and not just from a cost standpoint. Decaying organic material in landfills contributes significantly to the production of greenhouse gases, especially methane. Add this to a growing awareness of global food-supply insecurity, and food waste becomes a serious issue.

In fact, the European Parliament just passed a motion calling on the European Commission to halve food waste by 2025. The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in the UK has launched a program to encourage restaurant patrons to take leftovers home.

Where does food waste come from?

According to the SRA:

  • 30% is plate waste—that is, what diners leave behind on their plates
  • 5% is spoilage
  • 65% is prep waste

So how do I reduce food waste?

There are a few different ways to reduce food waste, depending on where the waste is coming from. Your first step should be:

  • Conduct a waste audit. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. Appoint someone to stand by your garbage bin and note where the most food is being thrown out. Is it prep waste, like celery leaves and carrot ends? Is it food that’s passed its best-before date? Or is it leftovers from someone’s plate? Unilever Food Solutions (UK) has a toolkit complete with charts that allow you to track what kinds of food are being thrown out.

If your waste is mostly from prep:

  • Re-think the traditional stock-pot. Many restaurants have a stock-pot where they throw in vegetable leftovers like carrot ends and celery leaves. That’s fine, but if you truly want to use as much of your produce as possible, you need a “nose-to-tail” approach—even for veggies. As this article from Restaurant Central points out, think about developing specific recipes for commonly thrown-out items: think about using your tomato bits to make tomato jam, fennel fronds to add to pesto—you get the picture. Sauces, soups and casseroles—even juices!—are excellent ways to use leftovers.
  • And speaking of nose-to-tail… Cooking meat is less expensive when you’re able to use the whole animal. While you’ll really reduce waste if your guests develop a taste for organ meats, you don’t have to go quite that far. Meatloaf, sausages and pate are all great ways of using up meat bits.
  • Develop and use a production chart to minimize over-prepping. Why chop too much lettuce if you don’t have to?
  • Keep an eye on trimming. Only trim off  what’s needed. Over-trimming is a major source of waste.
  • Compost! If you’re in a municipality that has organic waste pickup, great. If not, consider finding an organization that will pick up your organic scraps (the ones you couldn’t turn into soup, sauce or compote) and compost them.

If your waste is mostly from spoilage or over-ordering:

  • Unpack ingredients as soon as possible. Having your food out where it’s visible keeps it top-of-mind, and less likely to languish at the back of your walk-in fridge. In that vein, if you can, store food in clear plastic containers wherever possible.
  • Rotate your stocks of perishables at every delivery. Put older stock at the front of a shelf, and date each product when you receive it (just in case things get mixed up on the shelf).
  • Keep your fridge and freezer clean. This will help ensure that food is accessible and won’t get lost in the shuffle.
  • Donate your leftovers. Organizations like Second Harvest will “resuce” food you’re not able to serve and donate it to soup kitchens and other community agencies.

If your waste is from diners’ plates:

  • Re-think your portion sizes. As more and more people become conscious of proper serving sizes, over-sized portions just look…well, a little garish.
  • Adjust your menu. It may be your favourite dish in the world, but if diners are consistently refusing to eat your turnip mash, stop serving it.

Regardless of where your waste is from, share your efforts with your staff and make the effort to communicate your results. One easy way to do this is to weigh your waste before you start an initiative, then weigh it afterwards. As anyone who’s tried to lose weight can tell you, a concrete number can be very compelling.

What have you done in your restaurant to reduce waste? Share your tips in the comments section.

Image credit: sporkist