Minimize food waste and support your community with an audit

By Lori Nikkel

 We know that restaurants work really hard to get as much food out the door as possible without wasting any, but there still may be opportunities to do more. Is there a way to minimize food waste in your restaurant, make more money, and support your community? If you’re looking to update some of your practices in a way that can have a real impact — not only on your restaurant, but on the environment itself — tackling food waste with an audit may be a great place to dig a little deeper.

Every year, 58 per cent of all the food produced for Canadians is lost or wasted. That’s about 35.5 million tonnes of food. And while this waste happens across the supply chain, restaurants, hotels, and institutions account for about nine per cent of that total.

 So, where does the waste come from, and what can we do about it?

You may be surprised, but food waste in restaurants is not just about leftovers on someone’s plate; it encompasses a wide range of issues from kitchen scraps to over-prepped ingredients and dishes, unserved items and unclaimed pickups, just to name a few. Understanding where and why waste occurs allows us to implement systems for more efficient production and less waste.

Plate waste

Plate waste is food that has been served to a diner on a (you guessed it) plate that does not get eaten, but that cannot be repurposed due to health regulations. This is a common issue at buffets, for instance, where there is too much food on display and consumers often take more than they can actually eat. It also happens when portion sizes are too big, and for other reasons like when someone simply disikes a dish they’ve ordered off the menu.

Preparation waste

In the back of house, food prep is a great area to track to minimize waste (you can’t manage what isn’t measured). Prep waste includes everything from peelings and trimmings to spoiled ingredients that were fit to use before their expiration. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including staff needing more training about inventory and waste management.

Menu design

Waste can also stem from menu items that offer oversized portions or may not allow for the flexibility needed to use ingredients creatively. This can be especially challenging in settings with fixed menus (at a catered event, for instance) where everyone is meant to receive the exact same thing, whether it would be their choice or not.

While some amount of waste is to be expected in the foodservice industry, with the right tools and knowledge, some of it can be avoided. That’s where a food waste audit comes in.

How to conduct an effective food waste audit

A food waste audit is a process that aims to identify and quantify where and why food is wasted in a restaurant. By understanding these patterns, businesses can implement strategies that improve these processes and reduce food waste.

The audit process can be mapped out in four phases: plan, do, review, and create an action plan.

Define your strategy

Once you’ve committed to conducting a food waste audit, decide what your goals are: what area(s) of your restaurant do you want to audit? Is your focus in the kitchen or on food storage? What kind of waste do you want to track? Will you measure prep waste, plate waste, spoiled food, or all three?

Make a plan for how exactly you will measure the waste — get containers or buckets (with labels) for collecting the food waste, scales for weighing it, create a document for tracking all the data, and set a timeline for the audit.

Do the actual audit

Once you’re ready for the audit, make sure everyone is on board and understands how you are tracking the waste. If you are measuring waste in bins, be sure to track the data at the end of each day and gather whatever input is most important.

For example, cooks measuring prep waste might note the amount of food that was unused or discarded, whereas servers might note what food consumers were often left on their plates. For both, food waste needs to be stored in a clearly labelled bin so it’s easy to measure and track.

Review your findings

In the review phase, look at the collected data to identify patterns and major sources of waste. Detailed records — whether anecdotal or clear statistics — will help you understand areas where you can potentially reduce food waste.

For example, the audit might reveal that a new menu item is consistently left uneaten. This might suggest it’s unpopular or too large in portion size. Another possibility is that you might discover that you’re over-ordering something or reviewing inventory inconsistently, leading to foods being improperly stored and going bad.

RELATED: Making the most of your inventory management

Implement an action plan

 Once you have clear data about your restaurant’s food waste, it becomes much easier to make a plan for where and how to tackle it. This could involve menu changes, portion size adjustments, or improvements in food storage and preparation practices. You might also need to train staff on better prep techniques or find creative solutions for discarded food waste — like making a stock from vegetable trimmings and creating weekly or daily specials to make use of leftover inventory.

For some, this may seem elementary, but you’d be surprised how much food is wasted simply because nobody thought to measure it. Your action plan needs to be specific to your restaurant. Maybe you already use your scraps for stock, but you haven’t addressed how much of a side dish gets wasted as a result of oversized portions.

Training staff, rethinking your menu, monitoring portion sizes and improving storage and inventory management can all go a long way in preventing food waste, which will not only save money, but can reduce a restaurant’s environmental impact and improve business operations overall.

And, of course, if you still find yourself with a surplus of food, connect with the Second Harvest Food Rescue App and have your great food redirected to a non-profit in your local community.

Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, is a renowned leader in social and environmental justice, particularly in the realm of food loss and waste. Lori has pioneered an innovative food recovery system ensuring surplus food from across the supply chain is redirected to charities across Canada, significantly reducing food waste and its environmental impact. Lori was named Canada’s Food Hero by the UN, received the Clean 50 award, was named one of Canada’s Women of Influence, and has been appointed to the Order of Ontario.