How Restaurants Can Help Reduce Food Waste

Annual food waste in the U.S. costs $218 billion dollars and piles up in the staggering amount of $63 million tons, according to ReFED, a food waste prevention non-profit. Nearly half of the volume and two-thirds of the cost is home food waste, but restaurants account for a sizeable amount of waste too: approximately $25 billion-worth, and more than 11 million tons. Restaurants can help reduce food waste—and see a savings. Every $1 that goes into waste reduction returns $8 in savings. Here’s how.

ReFED’s 2016 study of U.S. food waste and waste-reduction solutions, A Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste by 20 Percent, presented not just facts but action steps that could be taken across numerous industries to address this problem. While the Roadmap outlines a 20% improvement, the USDA/EPA goal for 2030 is a 50% reduction—so there is much work to do, and ReFED and its collaborators have given us a significant head start.

The keys to achieving improvement in the food waste crisis are simple: prevention, recovery, and recycling—good approaches to resource management in general.


Benjamin Franklin wisely quipped, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In this case, ReFED estimates that prevention could be worth nearly $620 million every year, with 2-6% food cost improvements. So it’s not surprising that it’s important to start here.

  • Design simpler menu items with fewer ingredients to waste and excess prep, and reuse kitchen trimmings (like citrus peels and herbs for cocktails) when possible.
  • Offer choice in portion sizes, encouraging patrons to order what they’ll actually consume (rather than upselling food that will be wasted).
  • Provide smaller dishes for buffets, self-service, and “all you can eat” dining, so patrons consume what they plate (and are less likely to over-server).
  • Make use of imperfect produce—just because it isn’t ready for a magazine cover doesn’t make a fruit or vegetable inedible. Celebrate “less pretty” produce, and be sure to cut and cook up perfectly-usable-yet-ugly items.
  • Gather data. Track food waste, whether by observation (including weighing bins, counting shipments and loads, etc.), or even with software and smart-device assistance.
  • Replenish stock based on data and tracking, sales trends, and inventory to avoid overbuying and wasted food due to spoilage.


Unused restaurant food often doesn’t need to end up in the dumpster. ReFED estimates 1.7 million tons of U.S. food are indeed reused—rescued—and donated to worthy organizations. As large as that quantity of food sounds, ReFED also expects that what could be rescued is a much greater amount: as much as an additional 5.8 million tons. Restaurants and food service already have room to grow in the food recovery effort, accounting for only about 10% of what is saved. Tax incentives and clearer donation rules are ReFED’s recommendations, but restaurants can have a bigger local impact by partnering with local charities and recipient groups. Pickups below certain quantities can be a cost burden for some organizations, so restaurants can connect with a growing number of food donation matching solutions to make giving—and receiving—more beneficial for everyone, while reducing food waste.


Not only should containers and other kitchen supplies be recycled, but kitchen scraps, oils, and leftover food don’t belong in the garbage either. Recycling of kitchen waste would have a big impact on reducing overall food waste.

  • Properly route waste waters (by pipeline or truck delivery) for municipal treatment and separation of compostable solids.
  • Compost in-house or deliver compostable trimmings and waste to a local facility.
  • Heat treat and/or dehydrate food waste to be reused for animal feed.
  • Recycle cooking oils. Not only are they bad for municipal water treatment and shouldn’t go down the sink, but they can live to fry another day.


It will certainly take some effort to help reduce food waste, but there are great benefits for restaurants as well.

  • Save money. The study shows that investing in food waste reduction comes with an even greater savings. It’s not an expense—it’s good business.
  • Act responsibly. Reducing waste is the right thing to do, and being a responsible business owner and restaurant establishment can feel right, and good, regardless of the financial benefit.
  • Bolster reputation. Never before have consumers demanded corporate responsibility more, so restaurants that make waste reduction a priority stand out in the crowd and align themselves with consumer values. That reputation will drive foot traffic and sales.

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