Restaurants are notoriously famous for the extreme amounts of food waste they produce each year. Be it customers leaving leftovers or employees neglecting ingredient storage rules, it causes food waste that eventually ends up in a landfill. Moreover, all this wastage drastically reduces a restaurant’s bottom line. So it’s important to know how to reduce food waste.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), roughly one-third of the world’s food is wasted. This amounts to approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, suggesting a dire need for better food management. Reducing your restaurant food waste is not just good from the ecological point of view; it helps your business too by increasing its profit margins.

→Looking for more ways to increase your profit margins? With EagleOwl, it’s now easier than ever. Book a free demo today to know how.

How does food waste affect the environment

If you’ve been thinking there is no way food waste can cause adverse effects, you’re probably living under a rock. The food waste being generated in a restaurant in just one day in the form of leftover food, burnt food, expired ingredients, and single-use plastic used for packaging can be of major concern. 

Restaurant leftover food items that cannot be recycled take hundreds of years to degrade. Secondly, when they are left to degrade in the landfills, they release certain chemicals that harm both animal and plant habitats. One of these chemicals is methane, a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gasses negatively impact Earth’s energy and temperature balance. Methane is 25 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

Reducing food waste and stopping it from ending up in landfills helps stop almost 11% of Greenhouse gas emissions. Failing to do so may lead to some serious long-term effects on our ecosystem. This also means that the use of such non-recyclable items should be completely replaced by more sustainable options.

how to reduce food waste in a restaurant
Leftover food in restaurants

Why you need a restaurant waste audit

Don’t know where to start or how to reduce food waste? The process of reducing and recycling food waste can be made effective by performing a restaurant waste audit. It involves documenting and tracking your restaurant’s waste that allows you to make better decisions regarding your food purchases. 

Get your staff to write down the quantity and description of everything that is getting thrown in the garbage bins. Unless you have a clear picture of the amount of waste your restaurant is producing, you cannot create an effective waste reduction plan. Start by sorting different types of waste. 

Once this is done, weigh each type of waste to identify where your major portion of waste is coming from. This will help you create the right strategy to produce as little waste as possible. Measuring food waste by taking down notes of all the ingredients that are getting discarded has another huge benefit – you can create a backup plan for the next time you notice the same ingredients in the garbage bin.

Best practices to reduce food waste in restaurants

Reducing your restaurant’s waste isn’t a quick job, and can seem challenging at first. However, with the right zero waste ideas, you can become the proud owner of a waste-free restaurant. Follow these tips to become a zero-waste restaurant:

1. General food waste reduction ideas for restaurants:

  • Identifying where food is being wasted is the first step in reducing restaurant food waste. To reach the zero food waste mark, start with an audit. A food audit helps identify the sources, types, and amounts of food waste in your restaurant. Then, you can target problem areas by setting specific waste reduction goals.
  • Stocking up huge quantities is not always the wise option. Buy only what you need. Don’t get tempted by discounts being offered on bulk purchases. 
  • Perishable ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables, make up a large percentage of the world’s food waste. Thus, it’s best to buy these ingredients in small, manageable quantities. Alternatively, you can purchase dry and non-perishable ingredients in bulk.
  • Restaurants often throw away unwanted parts of fruits and vegetables.  However, finding ways to use these pieces can reduce food waste. For example, you can make skin crisps with potato peels and vegetable stock with vegetable trimmings.
Potato waste being reused
  • Optimize food procurement by sourcing from local suppliers. When you buy perishable foods locally, you receive them fresh since they don’t arrive from a far-off location. This ensures a longer shelf life and helps in reducing the chances of spoilage.
  • Don’t buy ingredients that aren’t popular among diners. Study your restaurant’s food consumption and verify variance reports. This will help you identify the gaps in expected consumption and actual consumption of an ingredient. If there is a huge difference, you can reduce the buying quantity of a particular ingredient. 
  • To understand what’s going wrong, keep a record of the food being wasted in your restaurant on a daily basis. For instance, below is the EagleOwl wastage feature. You can train employees to enter the reasons why an ingredient or a menu item was spoilt/left over. You can analyze these insights and find the right strategy to reduce wastage.
Recording food waste in restaurants
Recording wastage in EagleOwl software
  • Portion control in restaurants is a necessity to ensure customers don’t send back leftover food at the end of a meal. Limiting food servings to small portions helps minimize food waste and control food costs in restaurants.
  • Batch cooking can lead to overproduction of food. By limiting batch cooking, you can save resources and offer customers fresher meals. That’s a win-win for everyone involved!
  • If your goal is to have a waste-free restaurant, why not invite customers to join your efforts? Educate customers about food wastage and advise them to buy the right amount of food to eat. Try talking to your regulars about food wastage and sustainable practices.
  • Leftovers are a big source of food waste in restaurants. If you encourage customers to take leftovers home, your restaurant’s food waste reduces.
  • Reducing food waste at the cost of increasing plastic waste is a poor trade-off. Plastic waste is a major contributor to your carbon footprint. So, consider providing compostable food containers for takeaways. 
  • Educating your staff about food waste and sustainable practices is super important to becoming a zero-waste restaurant. Giving them proper training about how composting can help eliminate unnecessary waste. 
  • Find alternatives that involve recycling waste products. For instance, McDonald’s recycles cooking oil and grease to fuel their delivery vehicles. You can also set up a rendering service for used cooking oil and grease. Another option is to donate fuel to local school buses.
  • Pay attention to ingredient expiration dates to avoid food wastage. A great way is to add labels to make that process easy. Practice FIFO while labeling/storing ingredients to ensure the ones with earlier expiration dates get used first.  
  • Diligent temperature control of stored food is a must to retain its freshness and avoid spoilage. Opt for storage devices with temperature sensors that give alerts about any system failure. This will allow your staff to take care of the stored items before they turn unusable.

2. Food Packaging ideas to reduce waste:

  • These days, vendors often distribute groceries and fresh produce in plastic packaging. However, you can eliminate this distribution waste by finding distributors who use compostable and environmentally friendly packaging.
  • Single-use items in the restaurant industry are a significant source of landfill waste. You can reduce your restaurant’s waste by offering alternatives to single-use items. For example, paper straws or steel cutlery are eco-friendlier than their plastic alternatives.

3. Operational changes to reduce your restaurant’s environmental impact:

  • Air travel generates high carbon emissions. However, you can limit your restaurant’s contribution to it by avoiding air-freighted ingredients – shop local instead!
  • You can go one step further and produce your own herbs and vegetables right outside your restaurant. It will make for fresher produce and an aesthetic storefront!
  • It might not seem obvious, but printed menus add to a restaurant’s waste. Switch to a touchless QR code menu instead – you’ll reduce your restaurant’s carbon footprint too. Moreover, it’s a more hygienic alternative as it reduces the chances of germs being passed on amongst customers through a physical menu card. 
Scanning QR code menu
QR code menu
  • Harsh chemicals and cleaning products add to environmental pollution. Reduce your restaurant’s environmental impact by using organic, biodegradable, and green cleaning products. For instance, baking soda mixed with water or vinegar is a great alternative to harsh chemical-based cleaners used in restaurants. 
  • Refilling soap dispensers contributes to plastic waste, because of the packaging. Try using refillable soap containers, which can be topped up from bulk sources.
  • Paper towels and tissues are single-use products that create waste. So cut down their use by opting for reusable and compostable alternatives.

4. Food waste reduction ideas to inspire others:

  • To inspire others to go zero-waste, you can set up accessible recycling and composting bins in your restaurant’s neighborhood.
  • While your efforts for reducing food waste certainly matter, it’s beneficial to get your customers involved too. Place signs around the store that educate customers on how to go zero-waste and help the environment.
  • Another way to serve a zero-waste inspiration to your customers is to inform them about any new zero-waste policies you implement. Better yet, get their feedback on your zero-waste policies and efforts.

As you can see, there are many ways to reduce your restaurant’s waste significantly. Confused about how to do it in your restaurant? Read our blog about the most inspiring zero-waste restaurants that are already implementing these practices: 6 Examples of Zero Waste Restaurants and What They’re Doing Right

How to recycle food in a restaurant

restaurant food waste recycling

Once you’ve adopted the above mentioned food waste solutions for restaurants, the next step is to establish a restaurant recycling program. But what can be done with food that’s already been cooked and served but customers haven’t consumed it all? Here are some ways to recycle leftover food in a restaurant:

1) Ask diners to take leftover food with them:

This is the easiest way to recycle food leftovers. Politely ask customers if they want to take their leftover food with them. To reduce the consumption of plastics for packaging, opt for sustainable packaging materials. You can also offer customers incentives for bringing their own containers in, such as percentage discounts or complimentary items.
A case study performed in 2021 to evaluate consumer attitudes towards leftover food takeout showed that customers had a positive inclination towards using a doggy bag to take home the leftovers of their restaurant meals. So don’t be shy to ask them if they want their leftovers wrapped up to take home.

2) Offer it to your staff:

Left with too much food after a buffet or a restaurant event? Use it to feed your staff. No matter how good a menu item tastes, there is always a possibility that it doesn’t get entirely consumed by the end of the day. 

In such situations, you can ask your staff if they want to take home any of the unused food. It’s no secret that it increases employee happiness when they get a free meal. At the same time, it helps in keeping your food waste percentage low.

3) Donate:

If your customers leave food on their plates, suggest donating the excess to local community meal services or the less fortunate. Let them know how their little act of kindness can make someone’s day.

Alternatively, you can donate the leftovers to animal shelters or a charity that accepts unused food. Not only is it a great way to deal with food waste but it is also very sustainable.

4) Sell it on food waste apps:

Don’t have the time or resources to recycle your restaurant food waste? Today, we have a lot of companies helping restaurants reduce their waste by taking the surplus food off their hands for recycling. 

For example, the app Too Good To Go helps restaurants and cafes reduce their food waste by allowing customers to buy food that didn’t sell at a discounted price. Food Rescue US does a great job of getting food to those experiencing food insecurity. It connects restaurants to organizations that distribute food to the needy.

5) Try composting:

Composting waste food is one of the best ways to restaurant food waste recycling. Instead of ending up in a landfill, food leftovers get naturally processed by composting to generate organic fertilizer. This fertilizer can be used to improve the quality of soil and the plants growing in it.

If you’re growing vegetables in your restaurant backyard, or have plants in front of and inside the restaurant premises, you can use this nutrient-rich fertilizer to improve their health. This way, you reduce your waste stream and get something useful for your plants too. 

You can recycle used cooking oil too by adding it to the composting pile. Keep in mind to use only very small quantities of vegetable oil (e.g. sunflower oil or olive oil) and avoid adding any animal-based oils (eg. fish oil). This is because vegetable oils aid the composting process by feeding the worms. 

We hope these tips on reducing food waste in restaurants have provided more insight into how to recycle leftover food. 

Food waste solutions for restaurants: Try EagleOwl

For any restaurant aiming to manage its food waste effectively, the first and most obvious step is to measure it. Without knowing where you stand or how much waste your restaurant produces each day, you cannot chalk out a successful plan for food waste reduction. 

This becomes easier with tech solutions like EagleOwl that focus heavily on BOH management. Through this user-friendly software, you can quickly get reports on your daily/weekly/monthly consumption of ingredients. This helps you to order better.

When you upload your recipes on EagleOwl, it helps you understand the actual food cost of preparing a particular dish. Based on this, you can decide its price and the appropriate portion size to be served. Serving large portions can increase food waste, so it’s important to have a clear understanding of your food costs.

In addition to this, the EagleOwl dashboard also gives you detailed insights into your most and least profitable menu items. You can review the less popular menu items and the leftovers coming back after a guest has finished their meal. Subsequently, you can take a call on whether to discontinue these items if it will help reduce food waste.

Interested in learning more about how EagleOwl helps reduce restaurant food waste?