Food waste in the foodservice industry is one of the most recognizable areas of food waste in America. All of us who dine out have internally debated the pros and cons of doggy-bagging leftovers, and the majority of Americans share the guilty experience of ordering the waiter to take the extra food away, knowing it was destined for the dumpster. 

As Americans, we frequently seek out establishments that offer more for our money, as well as enjoying the abundance of buffets and cafeteria-style eating, all of which innately generate large amounts of food waste. The United States also cultivates a thriving fast food industry, and the consequences of producing cheap, ready-to-go food are careless food waste policies. 

According to a 2005 study at the University of Arizona, food waste as a percentage of the total food used is 9.55% in fast food establishments and 3.11% in full service restaurants in the United States. That may not seem concerning, but, to put the statistics in perspective, the same study estimated that the total food loss per day amounted to 49,296,540 lbs in all full service restaurants and 85,063,390 lbs in all fast food restaurants. While this is a projected value based on collected data, it gives an idea of the sheer amount of food that is wasted on a daily basis in foodservice.


The sources of food waste in restaurants vary greatly, but, on average, a restaurant can produce 150,000 lbs of garbage per year. 

Pre-Consumer Waste

There is more to restaurant food waste than merely what the customers choose not to eat—a fact that tends to be ignored outside the restaurant business. The pre-consumer kitchen waste, which could be incorrectly prepared food, spoiled food, trim waste, or simply overproduction, constitutes an estimated 4-10% of purchased food, becoming waste before it ever reaches the table. There are solutions for reducing this portion of food waste, such as donating to a food bank, assessing prep waste to determine poor practices or highly wasteful items, and creative re-use of certain foods (e.g., making day old bread into croutons). These solutions might not be revolutionary, and yet they could make a difference with a bit of effort. 

Post-Consumer Waste

Post-consumer plate waste, or the food you neither eat nor doggybag, can be more complex because, even though Americans are aware of it, the decision not to waste relies heavily on consumer preference. American culture today revolves in many ways around getting more for less money, and food is no exception to this rule. This can lead to wasteful foodservice practices in the effort to entice customers with large, or even “family style,” portions. Once that food leaves the kitchen for the table, the consumer decides how much of these oversized portions to eat, and whether or not to take the leftovers home. Post-consumer food cannot be donated to food banks because of health regulations, so plate waste will be thrown away if it is not doggy-bagged, directly given away by the consumer, or composted.  

Plate Size

The American phenomenon of super-sizing food is one of the key trends contributing to restaurant waste. However, it isn’t only the burgers that have grown bigger in recent years but also the plates and glasses on which the food is served.  According to recent research, an optical illusion—known as the Delboeuf illusion—causes the serving size to appear smaller when more “white space” surrounds the food on the plate. This means that a larger dish can make a serving of food appear much smaller than the same serving of food would appear in a small dish. Putting this knowledge to good use allows restaurants to serve smaller portions on smaller plates, thus creating significantly less kitchen and plate waste, without causing the customer to feel cheated about their serving of food.  

Cafeterias and Buffets

These types of dining establishments must constantly provide ready made food throughout the day to customers, and only innovative management and significant effort can prevent food waste from piling up daily. Plate waste is more serious in cafeterias, and especially in buffets, since customers can usually fill various plates, sometimes with the option to refill indefinitely, generating alarming amounts of unrecoverable waste. And, of course, cafeterias and buffets leave large amounts of food sitting out at all times, and, similarly to fast food restaurants, food is only left out for a limited amount of time before it is thrown away. The obvious recourse is to donate leftover food, and, to a certain degree, that is what many establishments choose to do. However, both real and imagined legal concerns from health regulations often prevent cafeterias and buffets from donating, in an effort to avoid any potential lawsuits.  In addition, once food is put out, it cannot be donated to a food agency for health reasons. 

In college and business cafeterias, which often serve buffet style dining, a unique solution to food waste is becoming more and more common. Simply by eliminating cafeteria trays, people are limited in how much food they can take at one time, so they are more likely to fill up without taking excess food. According to Aramark, a dining company that serves about 500 schools in the United States, students waste 25-30% less food when they don’t have the option of carrying it on a tray.  When Iowa State University went trayless in 2010, to take just one example, the school saw a 10% reduction in wasted food.  This remarkable trend shows how small innovations can have a big impact in reducing food waste in the U.S. 

Fast Food

Food waste at fast food restaurants usually varies depending on the type and size of the chain. Larger chains tend to have lower food waste rates ranging from 5%-7%, while smaller, local chains can have loss rates as high as 50%. Although these losses are very different, even the lowest percentages still reflect the high amounts of food wasted in fast food chains. One reason for these food losses in fast food restaurants is the core industry idea of “Just-in-Time Delivery”. This method, combined with the use of regional warehouses instead of local suppliers, has led to less storage facilities in stores. The problem that arises is managers must anticipate changing consumer demand, and, in order to be sure the restaurant is never out of an item, they tend to order more food than the storage space can contain[1]. The final result is high amounts of food waste, especially of perishable foods, which become very costly for the chain.

According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, another issue for fast food restaurants is that they continuously prepare multiple food items that are only retained for short time periods. The time varies depending on the food item, but once the time limit is up, the food item is immediately tossed away. Bloom, who worked at a McDonald's, described French fries as the “mayflies of the food world”, because, even though they were consistently prepared throughout the day, each batch could only sit for 7 minutes before being tossed away[2]

Tax Deductions

Restaurants and chains that donate food can benefit by receiving tax deductions. According to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (Section 2135), business taxpayers that make inventory donations to charities can receive an income tax deduction. The Act permits the donating business to determine the “fair market value” of the donation, which cannot surpass two times the cost of the donated inventory. Although this law originally excluded single-owner franchises, the 2009 Extension and Expansion of Charitable Deduction of Contribution of Food Inventory temporarily expanded the original 1976 Act to include all businesses. Unfortunately, a bill introduced in both the House and Senate in 2011-2012 to permanently extend and expand charitable deductions for food inventory to all businesses did not make it out of Committee, so small companies are currently excluded from tax deductions. 

Going Green

A growing number of foodservice establishments have adopted “green”, or environmentally friendly, policies and practices in response to consumer demand for more conscientious eating. Although the meaning of the green movement might be understood in broad terms (sustainable, eco-friendly, renewable), the actual regulations for a restaurant to acquire a Green Restaurant designation are not generally known. In addition to composting and recycling plastics, glass, aluminum, cardboard, and paper, restaurants must compost pre-consumer waste, but only in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington DC, NYC, Philadelphia, Portland OR, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis. While it is not required, points towards certification are also awarded for restaurants that compost post-consumer (food and packaging) waste, donate to a food bank every week, and offer smaller portions of entrees at a reduced price. The Green Restaurant designation does encourage restaurants to be less wasteful, but it does not guarantee that restaurants are reducing food waste or diverting food waste from landfills.

EPA Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy for Restaurants

For unavoidable food waste, the USDA and EPA recommend various options for recovering surplus food, instead of sending it straight to a landfill. These recommendations are organized into the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy for Restaurants, from the most to least preferred option:

(1) Source Reduction: evaluate how to reduce waste before it’s created
(2) Feed People: make donations to food banks or soup kitchens
(3) Feed animals: send food scraps, especially kitchen waste, to farms
(4) Industrial Uses: various options include providing fats for rendering and oils for fuel
(5) Composting: recycle extra food into a useful soil additive

What You Can Do

Consumers can play a significant role in reducing food waste in restaurants.  Suggestions include:

  • Take home any leftover food you do not eat - and make sure to eat it or feed it to your pet.
  • Use smaller plates at buffets and/or don’t overpile your dish.  Take a little less than you think you will eat - you can always go back for seconds.
  • Encourage your local restaurant to sell half portions of food if their serving size is too big.  Check out what Halfsies is doing - some restaurants are offering smaller portions for the same price, with a portion of your cost going toward hunger programs.

[1] Jones, Timothy, Sarah Dahlen, Kathy Cisco, Andrew Bockhorst and Brian McKee Commercial Interview Results and Food Loss Percentages, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona. Report to the United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2003.
[2] Bloom, Jonathan. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do about It). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Print.