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Food waste in a kitchen trash can

Understanding Food Waste

A comprehensive food-waste audit is the first step to solving the problem.

The United States is a global leader…in food waste. In its most recent annual report, ReFED (a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the U.S. food system) revealed that 35% of this country’s food goes unsold or uneaten. That’s $408 billion worth of food, with a greenhouse gas footprint equivalent to 4% of total U.S. emissions. Restaurants and other foodservice businesses are responsible for 15.8% of that food waste burden, all while food insecurity in the United States has skyrocketed due to Covid-19.1

Obviously, this represents a tremendous drain on profitability. In fact, Datassential estimates that wasted food accounts for anywhere from 4%–13% of total food costs, which is especially dire at a time when many operators are struggling financially.2 In addition, consumers—particularly in the influential Gen Z and Millennial cohorts—are becoming more attuned to the environmental and societal costs of food waste.

Foodservice operators have everything to gain from creating an internal food-waste prevention culture—including more resilience during times of change. For many, the first step is understanding the scope of the problem. A Food-Waste Audit—whether conducted in-house or outsourced to a contractor—can identify the sources of waste and help in developing better waste-management practices.

Begin at the Beginning: Before the Garbage Can

Tracking food waste can be a messy job, but someone’s got to do it. Performing an audit that identifies and logs food that’s being thrown out, before it hits the garbage can, is key.

According to Leanpath, which provides automated food-waste tracking systems and guidance to the foodservice industry, there are two types of food waste which must be audited separately: pre-consumer (food discarded by back-of-the-house staff, such as overproduction, trim waste, expired food, spoilage, overcooked items), which accounts for the bulk of food loss; and post-consumer (food not eaten or taken home by the customer, a.k.a. “plate waste”).3

  • Select a period of time (ideally at least a week) that represents typical sales volume and when food waste can be tracked consistently every day
  • Designate one or more team leaders to guide the effort, such as the chef and the dining room manager, and encourage them to select other employees to help
  • Get the rest of the staff on board, including front- and back-of-the-house, by explaining the goals and methods behind the audit
  • Set up a single large bin for pre-consumer food waste, along with a scale and cleaning supplies, and another one for plate (post-consumer) waste 
  • Use a log to track what food is being tossed: date and time, type of food, reason for loss (for example unusable trim or spoilage), and weight, either by individual or batch disposal
  • Do not record items like banana peels, eggshells, and coffee grounds, or other non-edible organic items such as compostable disposables
  • After weighing and recording, discard items in the normal way

Putting It All Together

Once the pre-consumer audit is complete, it needs to be analyzed and acted upon. Leanpath3 suggests undertaking the following steps to arrive at meaningful food waste data:

  • Record the number of meals served and the total sales for the audit period
  • Add up the weight of the food thrown out, ideally by food type and reason
  • Estimate the dollar value of the food lost, using $1.25/lb. as a guideline
  • Calculate summary metrics to create a post-audit report, such as:
    • Annualized totals (projected weight and dollars lost per year)
    • Dollars lost to waste as a percentage of food purchases
    • Dollars lost to waste as a percentage of sales
    • Weight of pre-consumer waste per meal
    • Estimated value of pre-consumer waste per meal

Perhaps most important, the exercise will help develop a “foodprint” of the operation. Patterns will emerge, such as a lot of vegetable trim going to waste, fish spoiling, or excess menu item prep being thrown out.

Once you’ve identified what your waste consists of and how it is disposed, you can begin to make changes to your waste-management practices, through modifications  in forecasting, purchasing, ingredient rotation, cross-utilization, and prep, as well as techniques for repurposing food. An ongoing system of tracking food waste will validate operational strategies and identify problem areas before they become big problems.

Ideas for Action

Monitoring and preventing food waste is a team effort.

  1. Note that plate waste is relatively easy to track, and often can be addressed within a day or two of monitoring. Are only half the french fries being eaten? Reduce the portion size. Do many guests leave the lettuce-and-tomato sets for burgers on the plate? Make them optional. Is bread being wasted? Consider offering it by request only or as an à la carte order.
  2. Train, train, train…and train again. This includes new hires as well as ongoing communications with staff, such as at pre-shift meetings.
  3. Incent team members to suggest solutions to the problem of food waste.
  4. Expand your waste monitoring efforts beyond food and other organic matter (such as compostable disposables) by setting up clearly marked cans and bins for other waste streams: recyclables, and foil and other non-recyclable or non-compostable trash.
  5. Use back-of-house signage to remind employees to reduce food waste.
  6. Institute better food-inventory management and storage systems.
  7. Change the menu to focus on better cross-utilization of ingredients and prep.
  8. Offer multiple portion sizes, limit self-service options, provide smaller plates or trayless dining, and other portion-control measures.
  9. Make it easier for customers to “doggy bag.”
  10. Think about ways to donate wholesome leftovers to a third-party service or local food pantry.
  11. Consider in-house composting or a local organics recycling option. Many towns and municipalities offer resources you can contract with to provide and pick up the buckets and bring the organic waste to an offsite location to turn that waste into compost.

Sources: 1. ReFED Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50% and the ReFED Insights Engine (2021); 2. Datassential, “Waste Not” (2019); 3.

The information provided is based on a general industry overview, and is not specific to your business operation. Each business is unique and decisions related to your business should be made after consultation with appropriate experts.