Six Ways You Can Waste Less Food

Vegetable trimmings, buffet leftovers, accidental spoilage, cooking mishaps—food waste is a fact of life in commercial kitchens, supermarkets, restaurants and at home. Food waste accounted for 14 percent—or 35 million tons—of total municipal solid waste in 2010, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Global Food Losses and Food Waste" by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reports fruits and vegetables including roots and tubers as having the highest wastage rates of any food. And in a nation where hunger-relief organization Feeding America reports 1 in 6 people are hungry, financial and human considerations alike are compelling arguments for developing strategies to avoid wasting food.

Conduct a Waste Audit

Tracking resources-in/resources-out is hardly a new concept to foodservice managers, but the higher the level of detail used to follow and record waste, the more successful you can be in identifying where, why and how much your operation produces: from pre-consumer food waste (from over-ordering, inaccurate forecasting, overproduction, spoilage, expiration and trim waste) to post-consumer food waste (what diners don’t finish).

The EPA offers tools—including a food waste audit log, food waste management cost calculator and a hierarchy guide for prioritizing waste reduction (see More Resources, bottom). Additional resources are also available for foodservice audits. For pre-consumer food waste, technology company LeanPath, Inc. offers the ValuWaste® System: food scales connected to a touch-screen terminal to track food waste prior to disposal. Another example includes MetaFlowScope software by CleanMetrics.

“[These tools] lead to better forecasting because operators understand the actual amount and type of food waste and react by modifying forecasts, purchasing and production practices,” says LeanPath president and CEO Andrew Shakman. “By tracking food waste, operators connect the front-line staff with the reality of their food waste and that can lead to better future judgment calls in batch cooking, food handling and merchandising.”

Cook As You Go

Implementation of batch cooking is another excellent strategy to prevent over-production, and is ideal in corporate dining and university cafeteria settings in which food is made to order. A cafeteria self-serve line can be slightly more challenging since customers are choosing from foods that are already cooked, but good communication among team members can facilitate replenishing the “hot line” as you go.

In the clinical sector, room service has become the new industry standard, in part because of its effectiveness in reducing plate waste—the amount of edible food served that goes uneaten. Heidi C. T. Burnett, MS, RD, LD, patient services manager at Oregon Health and Science University, says when the hospital’s food and nutrition services department switched to a room service system in early 2010, they immediately saw a significant reduction in plate waste.

“We decreased waste percentage from approximately 42 percent to 25 percent,” says Burnett, which was an average annual savings of approximately $250,000. “It is also useful when planning studies on particular entrée items (Question: Should we keep ‘Turkey Tetrazzini’ as a room service entrée? Answer: No) to ensure the best use of resources in an economy of increasing food costs and a patient population who is more particular than ever about getting fresh, healthy foods.”

Use Every Last Bit

Snout-to-tail cooking is not only a culinary trend, but a pragmatic choice for the waste-reducing kitchen. It’s an attainable goal, even if your staff is not trained in advanced butchery.

Instead of pre-portioned or precooked meats, buying whole chickens and shrimp can serve a dual purpose by using bones and shells, in addition to trim from certain vegetables, to flavor stocks, soups and sauces. Not all kitchen cooks may have experience in breaking down (or “fabricating”) bird carcasses, but it isn’t a difficult skill to learn. Consider investing in a staff course on basic poultry butchery.

For beef or pork, learn about preparing underutilized cuts, which can be less expensive, and find ways to incorporate them into your menus. If procuring local meats is an option, work with a butcher shop to maximize use of the animal.

Other foods can be given new life, too, such as transforming day-old bread into croutons, savory strata or bread pudding. Unused cooked grains may be repurposed for grain salads or added to soups. Cooking from scratch can allow you to adapt your menus according to ingredients on hand—and use foods that may otherwise go to waste.

Go Trayless

Trayless service, which discourages diners from taking additional servings of foods just because there is room on their tray, began at St. Joseph’s College in Maine. “In 2005 in conjunction with Hunger Awareness Week, we started a program called ‘Trayless Wednesdays,’” says Bon Appétit Management Co. general manager Stuart Leckie, who says the strategy cut the average food waste per person in half—enough incentive to expand the trayless program to permanent procedure.

A 2010 study by the department of nutrition, food science and packaging at San Jose State University found customer education and waste awareness resulted in a 25 percent reduction in plate waste at student dining facilities. When paired with trayless dining, plate waste was reduced by 54 percent. "We started by giving students the option of going trayless,” says Dianne Z. Sutherland, RD, LDN, dining services dietitian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which serves an average of 40,000 meals per day. “We had posters and staff explaining why—to reduce food and beverage waste and to conserve resources such as water—and reminding them they could always go back for more food. When we fully converted to trayless service, the students did not seem to mind.”


For unpredictable circumstances, such as cold storage malfunctions or a large event with low turnout, it’s important to have a redistribution plan for excess quantities of food.

Dining operations can redistribute in a few different ways, depending on the condition of the food and the parameters of the donation. Some food banks and soup kitchens accept clean, whole and properly handled leftovers. Also, seek opportunities to provide food scraps to area farmers for animal feed or establish a cooking oil recycling program with a local biodiesel producer.

In 2011, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association launched a three-year initiative called Food Waste Opportunities and Challenges with two goals in mind: decrease food waste sent to landfill and increase food sent to donation. “Per the EPA’s food waste hierarchy, the top priority after preventing food waste in the first place, is to feed people,” says GMA sustainability director Meghan Stasz, adding that key to the program is cross-industry collaboration among “representatives from the manufacturing, retail, restaurant and foodservice industries, as well as knowledge partners like Feeding America and Waste Management.” Among those sectors is the supermarket—another setting in which registered dietitians can influence change.

“America has the best food distribution system in the world, but we continually seek ways to further reduce food waste,” says Jane Andrews, MS, RD, nutrition and product labeling manager for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. “Less-than-perfectlooking produce may be perfectly ripe for Today’s Feature in the prepared foods department, while innovative technologies can create compost or energy from foods that would otherwise enter the waste stream. Supermarket RDs are in a unique position to share insight from their store with employees and customers. Reducing food waste, whether in the store or at home, helps everyone’s bottom line.”

Compost the Rest

Food scraps that end up in landfills generate a significant amount of methane. In fact, 20 percent of all methane emissions in the United States come from landfills. And with food waste in the forefront of conservation concerns, it is becoming easier to find commercial composting facilities. While there is some cost to compost hauling, it is typically less than that of solid waste.

In the kitchen, plan for separate, clearly labeled (or different colored) collection bins in both food preparation and dishwashing areas. Pre- and post-consumer food waste may be safely composted, and doing so helps put nutrients back into the soil.

More Resources

Garrett Berdan
Garrett Berdan, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and chef. He cooks, teaches, and inspires others to prepare delicious and healthful food.