Ask The Salty Waitress: How Much Food Do Restaurants Waste?

Dear Salty,

I hate wasting food, I do it enough at home as it is and I'm trying to cut down on it. So when I go to restaurants I'm always thinking about whether a ton of food is going straight from the kitchen to the trash. I can almost never finish a whole entree, so I know I'm not helping. Is food waste a big issue in restaurants?

Just Wondering

Hey there, Wonderer,

No need to lose sleep over the food waste question, honey. Your neighborhood restaurant has it under control.

There are a few different types of food waste that any dining establishment tends to rack up, and each type is dealt with a little differently. First, there's the stuff left on customers' plates after they leave, like those entrees you say you simply can't finish. Hate to break it to you, but there's not much we can do about that stuff besides throw it away. It's not even fit to give away, because of pesky health codes designed to make sure we don't spread germs and kill anyone. So, into the trash it must go. (Even if it looks like no one has touched it.) If this keeps you up at night, request a doggy bag and keep chipping away at that chicken scallopini from home until it's good and gone.

But restaurants have some pretty clever ways of preventing the other types of food waste that can crop up, because management doesn't want it going to waste, either—they paid for that food upfront, and they'd be stupid not to make the most of it. The most obvious example might be the table bread: You never know quite how much you'll need to set out for customers, so there's always a ton of it sitting around in the back. This bread can be frozen for future use as croutons, bread pudding, or breadcrumbs. And some of it can be used even quicker than that as part of the staff's family meal. (This meal is where a lot of food ends up just in the nick of time before it goes bad, as a matter of fact. Servers aren't too picky about their food as long as it's free.)

When you go out to eat, you're often a guinea pig without even realizing it. Ever order the "chef's special" because it sounds so unique? Or go out for brunch with friends and decide on the frittata because you want to make sure you sneak in some veggies alongside your mimosa? Congrats, you're saving food that would otherwise be headed for the trash! (Seriously, that's a good thing, and you're helping out a restaurant when you do it.) No chef ever wants to throw out unused proteins, because meat is expensive. Those all get stored in the freezer, too, and when there's enough sitting around to experiment with, voila!, a new special hits the menu. Vegetables that didn't get used up Saturday night find a second life on Sunday morning, whether in a frittata or an omelet or a quiche or a skillet scramble. Anything else that's left over from the weekend can be thrown into a stock, too.

I hope this explanation does something to calm your nerves, sugar. No one likes seeing food go to waste, but I'd be willing to bet that restaurants are keeping a better eye out than anybody else for opportunities to recycle it. When the margins are this thin, you do what you can.

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