What Do Restaurants Do With Leftover Food?

"Leftovers ... again?" You've definitely heard your family say that, but have you considered the flip side and wondered, "What do restaurants do with leftover food?" The answer: It depends on the restaurant and the food.

When Does Restaurant Food Become Left Over?

Restaurant find themselves with extra food as a result of one (or more) of these three situations:

  • Purchasing too much: This involves overbuying produce and other ingredients.
  • Serving huge portions: When restaurants make portions too large, customers leave food on their plates.
  • Preparing too much: Restaurants may expect a large run on a particular menu item, but not serve as much as anticipated.

Food leftovers from the purchasing stage might include blemished fruits and vegetables that are slightly past their storage time but are still safe to eat. However, many restaurants won't serve them because of their appearance. Some food, such as grilled chicken breasts, could be frozen and then used in a different recipe. Stale bread might become bread pudding. Brad Hindsley, the executive chef and owner of the farm-to-fork Spire in La Porte, Indiana, says, "Some [restaurants] might turn it into a daily soup or run it as a special."

What Do Restaurants Do With Leftover Food That's Already Prepared?

Hindsley says that Spire and most restaurants give their leftovers as a staff meal. "If we have leftover catering food, we package it and give it to staff or take it to a local homeless shelter." Food recovery programs, such as New York City's City Harvest or San Francisco's Food Runners, will pick up leftover prepared (but unserved) food and deliver it to needy people. If individual meal components like sauces have been cooked but not served, they're sometimes delivered as well. They also take raw ingredients, including blemished produce that goes uncooked because of over-purchasing, to food pantries and soup kitchens. Of course, leftovers on customers' plates are thrown away.

How Do Restaurants Donate Leftovers Without Liability?

Restaurants that donate leftover food and ingredients no longer need to worry about liability, should someone become sick after consuming the donated items. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Donation Act to encourage companies and organizations to donate food that might otherwise go to waste to nonprofits serving the needy, according to Feeding America. They aren't liable for illness or harm caused unless gross negligence can be proven (for example, if they knew the food was contaminated or spoiled).

How Can Restaurants Avoid Wasting Food?

Food waste is a problem in the United States, where the equivalent of $165 billion in food a year is wasted, according to a study from the National Resources Defense Council. Restaurants play a major role in those statistics. The best way to cut back on restaurant food waste is to accurately judge what you'll use on any given day. Hindsley says, "We don't prep a ton of product in a week." As a result, Spire has minimal waste.

Good restaurants can have little food left over. The trick is to have enough food prepared to get through a meal service and always have enough make-ahead items (including sauces, dressings and butchered meats) to not have to interrupt a service to prepare more. Keep on-the-spot preparations (things you order that need to be finished in a pot or pan) to a minimum. If your establishment ends up with leftovers, research your options to see what's feasible for your neighborhood and restaurant.

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