A New Series: Avoiding Food Waste in Restaurants–An IIntroduction

By now, nearly everyone has heard that Americans waste half of our food. This was published in the 2004 findings of an eight year long, USDA-funded study done by anthropologists at University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research Anthropology.

Most of the waste occurs after food gets into consumer outlets such as grocery or convenience stores, in homes, after the food is purchased, and in restaurants. This is a shame, because if we could save some of this food, it could be used to help alleviate the hunger problem we have in our country. We could also save a great deal of money in the process.

There are plenty of ways for restaurant workers, cooks, chefs and owners to reduce the amount of waste that occurs within their establishments, and the truth is, most chefs strive to keep food waste at manageable levels. The main reason for this is because food waste affects food cost, which is the largest, most easily controllable expense which affects the profitability of any restaurant. Another reason that chefs work at keeping food waste to a minimum, is because, as a group, they tend to be among the most frugal people I have ever met. They hate to waste food. It is nearly a physical affront to many chefs to edible food thrown away.

As the grandchild of farmers and the great-grandchild of a butcher, I grew up with a similar attitude towards food waste. When you grow or otherwise produce food for a living, you know intimately the true cost of food in the form of very hard work. Vegetables just don’t spring up from the ground without effort, and meat doesn’t grow in supermarket meat cases already encased in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. Fruits, vegetables and grains require a lot of work to be brought to market, from soil preparation, starting seeds indoors or sowing them outdoors, to weed removal, to pest control, pruning, to harvest.

Meat production is even more tricky, as it involves keeping livestock healthy, well fed, happy (unless you raise them in a CAFO–confined animal feeding operation–situation, in which case, the happiness of the animal, unfortunately, doesn’t enter into the equation), and carefully bred. Mammals and birds all have different needs for housing, food, and water, and these need to be balanced carefully when raising them for food.

In the interest of respecting the effort that goes into growing food, it behooves chefs and home cooks both to try and reduce food waste in our kitchens; the great side effect of this is that we will also reduce our food costs. In the years ahead, as oil prices rise, and food prices continue to soar, these techniques of avoiding food waste are going to become even more important than they are now.

In the following series of posts, I will list the various ways that chefs avoid food waste in the kitchens of their restaurants. These techniques are useful not only in a professional setting, but can also be adapted to our homes to great effect. In addition, I will give examples from my own experience both in restaurant kitchens and on the farm, to show how many of these ideas which have become codified into restaurant practice grew out of formerly commonplace sensible frugality.

So, look for great tips on avoiding food waste in the next few posts–I hope you will not only find them edifying, but entertaining.


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  1. Thanks for the upcoming tips in advance. It’s something I can definately use. My biggest problem is keeping produce fresher. Personally, I’d like to see more inventions that keep these fresher longer. I currently am using Everfresh bags for some of my produce and had been pleased with the results. Freezing some also is convenient (e.g peppers). I’ve done this with organic peppers when they’re on sale because you never know when they’ll be in stock again sometimes. But not every produce freezes well…Good challenges for future scientists and patent seekers!

    Comment by vegoftheweek — April 3, 2008 #

  2. Neat, I am excited to hear this stuff!

    Like vegoftheweek, I love the Evert-Fresh bags too. I lose so much less produce to waste now. And I’ve started freezing herbs I can’t use right away for later use in cooked stuff. I like going the farmer’s market because I can choose better how much to buy, and don’t have to buy three peppers if I only need one. But my eyes tend to be bigger than my stomach, and that’s where the bags come in handy.

    Comment by Alexis — April 3, 2008 #

  3. I am also looking forward to your tips. A few years I bought a Food Saver and I use it so much. I regularly used to throw away “freezer burned” meats, breads, etc. Not anymore! I Food Save cheese, spices, etc. to keep them fresh, and most leftovers also get Food Saved and thrown in the freezer. I figure for an initial investment of about $160 I have not wasted hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of food.

    Comment by Grace — April 3, 2008 #

  4. I definitely look forward to more on the topic of avoiding waste. I tend to be less interested in gadgets and more focused on buying smaller quantities of perishable foods more frequently. When I moved to Los Angeles, I chose an apartment with 3 grocery stores (including Trader Joe’s) within walking distance.

    I take it very personally when anything in the fridge turns inedible because I’ve lost track of it. This was the biggest issue my husband and I had while living together early on — in his family “no one eats leftovers.”

    Well, I set to work to change his mind about that. =D Now he looks forward to my leftovers and often says “This is better today than it was yesterday! What did you do?”

    Ummm, I learned how to cook. That helps a lot. And I am a drooling amateur compared to you, Barbara, so I look forward to learning some great new stuff. On top of all the great posts that are already here!

    Comment by Julie Cancio Harper — April 3, 2008 #

  5. Julio Cancio Harper,

    An apartment within 3 grocery stores walking distance???!!! I’ve found my food twin. I too have chosen every living located based on the groceries in the area (don’t think I’d ever live farther than one I couldn’t comfortable bike to and back). I currently live less than a mile from 5 that I shop at frequently!

    IN addition, a few years ago, I would walk on a daily basis to pick up dinner or lunch ingredients…Whether this was an motivation not to waste or my inability to think about what I wanted to eat for an entire week…I just don’t know.

    Comment by vegoftheweek — April 3, 2008 #

  6. I am so excited about this! I consider myself pretty frugal, but even so, it always feels like I am throwing away bits of food. At least these days I am composting it – but still…

    I am fairly good about menu-planning, but I still feel like there’s way more I could be doing. I can’t wait to see your perspective. Knowing you, it will be both holistic and practical.

    Comment by Diane — April 3, 2008 #

  7. I’m eagerly awaiting your take on avoiding food waste, a topic near and dear to my heart. Given your respect for the effort and artistry of raising and preparing food, I’m sure it will be a rewarding series of posts.

    I’m particularly interested in these codified restaurant practices that grew out of frugality. Looking forward to it!

    Comment by Wasted Food — April 4, 2008 #

  8. Graet idea! I’m looking forward to reading about this!

    Comment by Maninas — April 4, 2008 #

  9. The three most practical bits of advice that I’ve learned from 10 years of working in kitchens are:

    1. Scrape your buckets! Absolutely nothing is ever left sitting at the bottom of a bucket or jar. That’s my biggest pet peeve when I am training apprentices at work: scrape, scrape, scrape!

    2. Meticulously label and date everything that is in your fridge, freezer, and pantry, and rotate your stock (FIFO–first in, first out). If you know what you’ve got going on in your kitchen, you’ll be more likely to use food before it goes to waste.

    3. Keep an organized list of staples that you keep in your fridge and dry pantry. Figure out a par level (what you need on hand) for your family on a weekly basis. Before grocery shopping, take inventory. This will keep you from buying another jar of peanut butter when you’ve already got two in your pantry. This is an indespensible tool that restaurants use to control food cost.

    I do inventory twice a week on everything that is in my dry goods, walk-in coolers and my walk-in freezer. Inventory is always done before I place a food delivery order (which is also twice a week). My inventory lists are organized by area, which are broken down into sections according to how I organize stock (makes it easy and efficient to count and place an order).

    I establish par levels of each item (what I need to get me until my next delivery), and these I keep track of throughout the year and adjust as needed. I only order enough to keep me at the par level, this keeps me from ordering (and buying) too much, which negatively affects my food cost and keeps me from having to throw away food.

    There are many other practices that we use in the industry, but for me, these are the top three.

    Comment by Roxanne — April 5, 2008 #

  10. I’m not surprised that restaurant chains waste 40% of their food. Every one I’ve been behind-the-scenes of wasted huge amounts of food because as soon as a product goes beyond its expiration date it’s thrown away.

    Usually the food is still perfectly good, and it’s tempting for the employees to take it home, but it’s considered stealing if they did that without paying for it, but it can’t be sold if it’s past its date.

    When my mom was the manager of a Boston Market she used to let her employees take the food home anyway, and also took it home for me and my sister to eat, but that’s because the was the manager and could get away with it as long as none of her employees turned her in to the higher ups (and of course they wouldn’t do that when they were taking home whole chickens and big bags of vegetables for free).

    When I worked at a Barnes and Noble, the Starbucks cafe would throw away an entire garbage bag full of muffins, cookies, and pastries every night! It was explained to me that they had to have a certain amount of product out in the display case at all time to look pretty, and if it wasn’t sold at the end of the day, it had to be thrown away (I suspect Boston Market had a similar policy since those stores have their food out cafeteria-style and the chickens turning on a spit behind the counter for the customers to see). I got in trouble there once for being caught on the security camera rescuing/stealing some cookies after we had closed and they were destined for the garbage. Nothing serious, I was just told never to do that again.

    I guess the policy is there because if you let your employees start taking expired food home it starts to get hard to tell if they’re sneaking out some sellable food too, but still it seems like a huge waste to me, and I supsect all fast food and restaurant chains are like this.

    Comment by Neohippie — April 6, 2008 #

  11. I look forward to non-waste tips, but I have the ultimate “non-waste program” right now down by the barn. I have 300+ chickens, all rare and exotic heritage breeds, producing tons of eggs, 50 dozen a week right now. However, I’m sure you’ve all heard about the tremendous rise in feed prices, mainly corn [now wheat] being converted into questionable fuel. At $2.50 for free-range, beautiful fresh eggs, higher in beneficial nutrients and from happy chickens, I am losing money on each dozen. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could feed some restaurant waste or grocery produce “questionables” to my chickens. Horrors! The produce clerks gasp about liability, as do the restaurants, when I ask for discards of perfectly good foodstuffs. I do have to watch for excess salt and sugar in human products when feeding the birds processed or prepared foods, but it sure would make a difference in my feed costs (as well as being nice to the planet) if excess food could make it through the chickens, into compost, and then into the huge vegetable garden that feeds humans as well as back to the chickens. Right now, it is going into the landfill in plastic bags. Sigh.

    Comment by Suellen Kolbo — April 6, 2008 #

  12. Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “There are plenty of ways for restaurant workers, cooks, chefs and owners to reduce the amount of waste that occurs within their establishments, and the truth is, most chefs strive to keep food waste at manageable levels. The main reason for this is because food waste affects food cost, which is the largest, most easily controllable expense which affects the profitability of any restaurant. Another reason that chefs work at keeping food waste to a minimum, is because, as a group, they tend to be among the most frugal people I have ever met. They hate to waste food. It is nearly a physical affront to many chefs to edible food thrown away.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

    Comment by Evaine — April 10, 2008 #

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