Reducing surplus food is at the top of the EPA food recovery hierarchy because it has the greatest financial, environmental, and social impacts.
Use our guidance to determine which source reduction strategies will work best for your facility and how to integrate them into your standard operating policies and procedures. Track your impact, and share results with leadership.
Assemble the team
In addition to your core team, you may want to include people with roles such as the executive chef, nutrition and dietetics, inventory manager, prep, line cooks, catering, and front of house servers or staff.
Inform and train staff
Train your staff on the source reduction strategies required for their roles, and keep them updated when changes occur. Encourage an environment of creativity when it comes to minimizing food waste – often it is those on the front line who observe where waste is occurring. In an open environment where feedback is welcome and celebrated, your staff members can take pride in their ideas for increasing efficiency.
Review your baseline or audit
Review what you learned from your baseline or audit. Two common causes of food waste to target for source reduction are overproduction and spoilage. Reviewing your composting numbers can also show you how much opportunity there is for source reduction.
“Most food service segments see overproduction driving about 50% of their food waste. But in health care, it’s even higher: 65% of the weight of typical health care food waste is from overproduction, and a whopping 77% of the food waste by value.”
Jon Polley from UPMC Magee Women's Hospital shares his culinary secrets for reducing food waste and how he created a composting program he is working to scale to his entire system.
Choose your strategies
There are many ways to reduce food waste before it happens, which can be categorized into back-of-house and front-of-house strategies. If you're just getting started, select a small set of strategies to focus on first, and then expand to additional strategies.
Back of house
A hospital’s kitchen and food preparation areas, commonly referred to as the “back of house,” provide the majority of source reduction opportunities. Identify specific and measurable goals for preventing food waste, such as "reducing the overproduction of soup" or "ensuring green beans are not over-trimmed.”
Redesign your menus and meal planning to reduce the amount of food you waste.
Compare the number of meals prepared and served to the number of uneaten meals. You can use production sheets and tracking software to calculate this number.
Review which foods and food products are expired or thrown out on a regular basis. This will give you a better understanding of which purchased items are never used. Then you can change your ordering or preparation practices accordingly.
Conduct a plate waste study to identify the food items most commonly thrown away. This can inform whether the portion size should be reduced, the recipe should be adjusted, or the item should be eliminated from the menu.
Buy locally and seasonally. Locally produced items are often harvested days or even hours before you receive them. Local, seasonal items stay fresher for longer and taste better.
Avoid purchasing unique or special ingredients that are used seldomly or for only one dish. These items can be more likely to spoil.
Buy only what you need. Leanpath, a business that helps customers reduce food waste and improve efficiency, found its customers have typically reduced their pre-consumer food waste by 50% or more, resulting in a 2%-6% savings on annual food purchases. Your food distribution partners may have software that can help you forecast your needs so you do not over or under order. Ask your representative what they offer to help you purchase efficiently.
Order smaller quantities of foods that spoil most often. Your baseline assessment and tracking will help you identify these items.
Food storage and inventory
Ensure food is properly handled and stored to prevent damage and spoiling. Incorporate first-in, first-out storage and rotation systems for dry stock, deli, produce, seafood, dairy, and baked goods. Conduct “cooler tours” daily to ensure food is utilized, and come up with creative ideas for using up the surplus.
Minimize waste by utilizing as much of the product as possible. Employ root-to-stem cooking (using the entire vegetable) and nose-to-tail cooking (using the entire animal). Make healthy, delicious stocks and soups to reduce food scraps.
Special events and catered meals
Plan special events and catering to prevent food waste. Require frequently updated headcounts prior to the event to avoid overproduction. Consider eliminating special catering menus and instead offer what is already being prepared for retail areas.
Repurposing prepared foods
Weekend and night staff often have fewer options for food, and many rely on vending machine snacks for nourishment. If properly cooled and stored, overproduced food items can be made into meals for staff working during off hours. Additionally, feeding kitchen staff, a common practice in restaurants often called “family meal,” can be a way to utilize prepared foods and foods in storage before they expire.
“Mayo Clinic has focused on the top portion of the EPA’s food waste reduction pyramid – source reduction and feeding hungry people. One of the techniques we’re utilizing for source reduction is root-to-stem. This technique is helpful in ensuring that we are utilizing all useful parts of the plant.”
– Amanda Holloway, Mayo Clinic director of sustainability
UC San Diego Health
“We started initially with plate waste. We revamped our menus and style of service almost entirely based on plate waste studies. From there, we are looking at not just the amount of leftover waste but the expense associated with it. We are really looking at proteins, especially because we buy antibiotic-free, grass fed proteins. If we are wasting those, it is costing us even more! [We have a] big focus on proteins, and from there looking at what is selling and what is not, and then adjusting our production sheets.”
– Jill Martin, UC San Diego director of food and nutrition services
This toolkit offers back-of-house guidance on meal planning, food storage, and culinary techniques to reduce food waste.
Waste-reducing menus and ingredient waste potential analysis from Hotel Kitchen
Front-of-house waste is mainly generated from uneaten food on plates/trays. You can prevent a significant amount of food waste by making adjustments so that patrons do not have so much leftover food.
Portion sizes are often larger than an average consumer can finish in one meal, which can lead to significant plate waste. Changing the portion sizes of menu items and training staff on serving those portions can help reduce this waste.
At self-service stations, encourage customers to take only what they will eat with messaging about your food waste reduction efforts.
Trayless dining and smaller plates help shift consumer behavior to pick up fewer items at once, encouraging them to eat first, then go back for seconds if needed.
This toolkit from Hotel Kitchen offers waste reduction strategies for self-service stations, which are particularly useful for catered meetings and events.
This resource from ReFED offers more information on strategies to reduce waste like portion sizes and trayless dining.
These resources are recommended for source reduction.
ReFED’s Insight Engine has a “solutions database” that categorizes food waste reduction strategies and solutions by their potential impact (net financial benefit, tonnage of food waste diverted, climate, water savings, meals, and job potential). Use the database to identify and prioritize prevention strategies based on your desired impact.
The Hotel Kitchen toolkit for preventing food waste includes staff training videos that apply to multiple food service settings. It walks through getting started (setting up bins and waste audits) and preventing waste through planning, handling (tips for storing, prep, and portions), and serving.
Identify your performance measures
Determine how long your team will trial the strategy, and agree on the measures. Be sure to include the selected measures in your baseline. At a minimum, track type of food, reason for loss, date of loss, and weight.
Keep track of all the strategies you implemented and how you implemented them. Note which strategies were effective and why. Consider the following questions to explore with your staff:
- Is the flow of procedures for tracking and diverting food waste easy and straightforward, or does it cause confusion?
- Do kitchen staff feel supported and empowered to reduce waste, or is there a culture of fear of doing things the "wrong" way? What activities or strategies would create a more supportive environment?
- Do staff feel they have enough bandwidth to tackle food waste, or are they stretched and strained with their current workload?
Measuring the absence of something can be a challenge. How do you measure waste that was never created? To evaluate the effectiveness of source reduction strategies you may want to perform visual checks of garbage bins on a regular basis. If it appears that food continues to be placed in garbage bins, check in with staff to ensure they understand protocols. Another tracking method could be maintaining waste logs for whenever food is thrown away from coolers or due to overproduction (the two primary sources of back-of-the-house waste). Collect these data points on a regular schedule to measure your quantitative impact. If you are just getting started, we suggest you track them daily or as frequently as possible.
- Pounds of food waste due to overproduction
- Pounds of food waste due to spoilage
“Engage your staff. We have written food waste reduction into performance goals for our culinary team. This whole team approach has resulted in our staff coming up with creative ideas to reduce overproduction and waste.”
– Jonathan Polley, UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital
Implement and track your chosen strategy
Once you implement your chosen source reduction strategies, consider measuring on a regular schedule to track reductions.
Review your results and establish policies or protocols
Tracking your gains through source reduction will prove their effectiveness, and the data can be used to support integrating source reduction strategies into standard operating procedures, policies, and protocols.