5 basic ways to cut down on food waste

Big or small, busy restaurants will go through a tremendous amount of food to feed the hungry masses who file through their doors, be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Nothing pleases restaurateurs more than seeing empty plates once diners have had their fill, knowing their meal creations have "hit the spot." Sometimes, however, eateries are so generous with their portion sizes that much of what's leftover gets tossed.

Food waste is a major issue, one that's been brewing for a long time now. According to the National Restaurant Association and the National Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food that is produced is thrown out. Additionally, over 9 in 10 Americans trash perfectly fine food, wrongly believing that it's no longer safe to eat.

"Poor labeling may be responsible for much of the food that's wasted each year."

Kitchen staff sometimes make the same mistake, taking "sell by" dates too literally due to a food labeling system that the NRDC says is poorly regulated.

This issue may be coming to an end, as legislation is working its way through Congress that, if passed, would provide better guidelines regarding when food is no longer safe to eat.

"Contrary to popular belief, expiration date labels often don't indicate whether food is still safe to eat," said Dene Gunders, NRDC senior scientist. "As a result, we are tossing massive amounts of perfectly good food in the trash – along with all of the water, climate pollution, and money it took to get it to our fridge."

He added that the bill should provide consumers and restaurant professionals with the information they need to make smarter decisions both for their financial and physical well-being.

In the meantime, the National Restaurant Association has been tackling the food waste issue head on. Recently, NRA's sustainability director Laura Abshire held a workshop at Harvard University, providing tips on what food industry professionals can do to reduce food waste, helping them save money and natural resources in the process.

Here are a few of them, along with general tips from other industry experts: 

1. Donate to relief organizations
Giving back in the community is an essential component to business ownership, both because it's the right thing to do but also for the sense of camaraderie that it engenders. Abshire recommended that restaurateurs partner with the Food Donation Connection, which serves as an intermediary between the dining industry and homeless shelters. Over 1.6 million food donations were made last year alone, according to the FDC's figures.

2. Don't worry about liability
What often prevents small businesses or franchises from making food donations is the concern that someone will get sick and decide to sue. However, what owners often fail to realize is there's legislation in place that protects them from litigation, called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Passed in 1996, the bill guards donors from being prosecuted for food poisoning, so long as "gross negligence" can't be established.

3. Exercise portion control
Restaurants are known for providing their guests with more than enough to eat, ensuring diners get the most for their money. But this generosity may literally go to waste when plates come back to the kitchen uneaten or only pecked at. Take full advantage of portion control scales to ensure consistency, tailoring amounts on an as-needed basis.

Taking stock of what's in stock is a major component of restaurant management. Taking stock of what's in stock is a major component of restaurant management.

4. Inventory, inventory, inventory
Establishing an inventory system – done on the same day on a weekly or bi-weekly basis – is crucial to determining how much food is needed when placing orders. Ideally, inventories should be done on or around the same time every seven to 14 days to see which items go the quickest and need to be replenished.

5. Keep kitchen equipment in good working order
Of course, refrigerators and freezers keep food fresher longer. But they'll have the opposite effect if appliances aren't properly maintained. Make sure they're serviced routinely and keep track of the temperature readings. For instance, refrigerated food should ideally be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, check to see that deli slicers are sharpened so portion sizes are consistent.

Approximately 133 billion pounds of food that's produced per year is thrown away due to spoilage or premature discarding, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through food conservation programs and donations, lawmakers hope to cut food waste in half by 2030.

Hospitality and restaurant industry piece brought to you by Marlin Equipment Finance, a nationwide provider of commercial lending solutions for small and mid-size businesses. Marlin's equipment financing and loan products are offered directly to businesses, and through third party vendor programs, which include manufacturers, distributors, independent dealers and brokers in the security, food services, healthcare, information technology, office technology and telecommunications sectors.