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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30% to 40% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste each year. Restaurants are a significant contributor; in fact, between 4% and 10% of the food in commercial kitchens is thrown out before it’s even prepared. That’s a lot of meals thrown in the trash.

If you run a restaurant, this issue may already be on your radar. By finding ways to reduce food waste in your organization, you can ease the financial and environmental impact and set a good example for other businesses in the industry.

But how can your restaurant reduce food waste while maintaining quality? Read on to find out.

The impact of food waste

For restaurant owners, reducing food waste is a financial priority. After all, the ingredients you don’t use can come with significant costs. If you spend $100,000 on food and 4% of it goes to waste, you’re losing $4,000 — plus the costs of labor and storage that come with ordering, handling, and managing inventory.

On a grand scale, wasted food has more serious effects, both for the planet and the human race.

  • Environmental impact: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food waste accounts for 21.6% of municipal solid waste. Most of that waste ends up in landfills; this cycle wastes all the energy that went into growing, producing, and transporting the food. Because food emits methane as it decays, it contributes to climate change.
  • Food insecurity: The USDA found that 13.5 million households in the United States were food insecure in 2021, which means they didn’t have access to enough food at some point during the year. Wasted food can’t be rerouted to families in need.

The causes of restaurant food waste vary. Some food spoils before it can be used, often due to ineffective storage or poor inventory management. In some cases, your kitchen team might prepare too much of a certain dish; if you can’t serve it in time, it ends up in the trash. The same thing happens when customers don’t finish their meals.

7 restaurant sustainability tips to reduce food waste in restaurants

Here’s the good news: There are plenty of things you can do to improve food waste reduction at your restaurant. With small adjustments to your operational practices, you can cut waste, save money, and reduce your ecological footprint.

1. Conduct a food waste audit

A food waste audit is one way to track the food that’s thrown out at your restaurant. During the audit period, staff should dispose of all food waste — including kitchen scraps, spoiled food and plate scrapings — into designated bins. In the process, ask your team members to make note of the following:

  • Ingredients, dishes or items that appear frequently
  • Items that could be donated
  • Food that’s thrown out before it’s used

At the end of the audit, weigh the food waste. Write down the amount, along with the number of meals you served and the revenue you brought in. These numbers serve as a baseline for future comparison.

The results of the audit can help you find opportunities to reduce waste. If you notice that customers almost always throw out a certain vegetable or side dish, for example, it’s a sign to replace it with something else. If you have a high volume of spoiled food, consider revisiting your inventory and storage strategy.

2. Recycle used cooking oil

Restaurants use an average of 35 pounds of cooking oil every day. Disposing of it can be a hassle; an environmentally friendly solution is to recycle the oil. Get in touch with an oil-collection company that can pick up your used oil and transport it to a recycling facility. There, the oil is transformed into biodiesel fuel, animal feed, fertilizer and other products.

To reduce the amount of oil you send out for recycling, extend the life of your cooking oil by skimming it every 2 hours. It’s also a good idea to filter it at least twice a day to remove extra food particles and contaminants.

3. Optimize your restaurant storage

A poorly planned storage system can cause food to go to waste before you have a chance to use it. Here are some steps you can take to successfully optimize your restaurant storage:

  • Designate storage tasks to specific employees.
  • Create a shelf-life chart for quick reference.
  • Store and label products immediately after delivery.
  • Use ingredients on a first-in, first-out basis.
  • Use perishable items as soon as possible.

If you notice that certain items go in the trash frequently, it might be time to remove them from the menu or order them in lower quantities.

4. Donate food when possible

Speak to local food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters to identify the foods you can donate. Most organizations have specific rules; for example, they probably won’t accept prepared food that’s been on a buffet line. However, they can typically take nonperishable goods and packaged foods that aren’t expired.

Donating food doesn’t cut your costs, but it can help you earn tax credits. It also keeps food waste out of landfills.

5. Give leftovers to employees

When your restaurant has leftover food that can’t be safely stored, donated or used in another dish, invite your employees to take it home. This is a great way to reduce food loss when a specific item doesn’t sell or the kitchen makes too much. It also helps boost employee morale.

To protect your employees, it’s important to follow safe food-handling practices. Don’t let them take food that’s been sitting out too long, and always make sure it’s packaged and stored properly.

6. Consider composting

There’s not much you can do to salvage food scraps left over from food prep or customer meals. Instead of throwing them in the garbage, turn them into compost. One option is a commercial composter, which works quickly and accepts most types of food. Alternatively, you might be able to send your scraps to an industrial composting company.

If you have the space — and if the local health department allows — you might be able to build a traditional compost bin outdoors. Then, simply donate the compost to a local farm or community garden.

What can be composted in a restaurant kitchen?

  • Food and vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds and paper filters
  • Paper tea bags (no staples)
  • Eggshells (crushed)
  • Shredded paper and cardboard

Meat, dairy products and oils cannot be composted. Cooked food also will not compost.

7. Reduce portion sizes

Does most of your restaurant’s waste come from customer plate scrapings? Your portion sizes might be too big. Reducing portions is particularly effective if your customers can’t feasibly take leftovers to go; this is a common issue for restaurants located near hotels and airports. Alternatively, offer popular dishes in multiple size options so customers can order the one that best fits their appetite.

Before you start offering smaller portions, take time to train the staff. Teach them how to measure the correct amount of each item and how to plate it attractively. Depending on current sizes, you might consider using smaller plates or getting creative with presentation.

Additional restaurant sustainability tips

Reducing food waste in restaurants is just the first step toward sustainability. If you want to make a bigger change in your business, try these tips:

  • Turn off equipment. By shutting down some kitchen equipment when orders begin to dwindle, you can save hundreds of dollars each year.
  • Replace pre rinse spray valves. Swap them with efficient models that use 20% less than the federal standard of 1.6 GPM; it can help you save $115 to $240 annually on water and energy costs.
  • Insulate your water pipes. This low-cost strategy reduces energy loss.
  • Become a certified green restaurant. Work with the Green Restaurant Association to get personalized sustainability recommendations. When you meet them, you’ll receive a certification that can be used on your website and marketing materials.
  • Invest in sustainable packaging. Swap out plastic and foam options for sustainable to-go containers
  • Reduce single-use plastic cutlery. You’ll save money and reduce overall waste. To help, Grubhub has joined the #CutOutCutlery campaign. In addition, delivery orders automatically default to zero utensils, so customers can opt in only if needed.

Grubhub for Restaurants is committed to driving sustainability across the restaurant industry

As a trusted delivery and mobile ordering platform, Grubhub is taking action to boost sustainability and food waste reduction. When you sign up with Grubhub for Restaurants, you’ll gain access to features that include:

  • Quick menu edits. It’s easy to remove dishes when an ingredient runs out or you switch to a seasonal menu.
  • Promotions. Use sales to move inventory before it expires.
  • Virtual restaurants. A virtual restaurant is delivery-only; it gives you the freedom to adjust your menu, ordering and food-prep strategy to reduce waste and use fewer resources.
  • Tech integrations. Grubhub uses the latest technology to allow accurate ordering and reduce errors.

When you’re trying to cut back on food waste, every action helps. Whether you choose to compost food scraps or find a food-donation option for surplus food, your efforts can cut costs and help the planet. If environmentally friendly delivery is part of your sustainability plan, Grubhub can help. To try Grubhub for Restaurants, sign up today.