4 ways to reduce food waste in your operation

Chef manager at Rutger University’s Harvest Cafe, Alexandra Ceribelli, led a workshop session at MenuDirections where she discussed innovative ideas on cutting food waste.
Chef Alexandra Ceribelli
Chef Alexandra Ceribelli speaking at MenuDirections. | Photo courtesy of Scott Mitchell

Food systems are responsible for about one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. This fact shifts a large responsibility on foodservice operators to be adamant in their sustainability efforts, argued Chef Alexandra Ceribelli in a workshop session at this year's MenuDirections conference held at The University of Ohio in Columbus.

One reason for this responsibility is because players in the foodservice industry are more educated about food, said Ceribelli.

“We know how to take care of our food. We know how to grow our food. We know how to buy our food, we know what specs they come in. We have a lot more understanding than the average person who goes to the grocery store, gets food and brings it home with the best intentions,” she said.

One way to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is by working on reducing food waste, which has other benefits for operators such as cutting costs, said Ceribelli.

“And not only is reducing food waste better for climate change and our overall greenhouse gas emissions, but it's better for our pockets and our bottom dollar as well,” she said. “So you're saving money and you are helping to protect the planet.”

Ceribelli is chef manager at Harvest, a cafe located inside the New Jersey Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) at Rutgers University. The cafe runs on a 18% food cost, said Ceribelli, who shared the ways her team is working on cutting food waste.

Here’s a deep dive into four of the ways the team at Harvest accomplishes this.

1. Don’t peel your vegetables

Not peeling vegetables is one simple yet innovative idea that Ceribelli has implemented in her operation. She noted that a lot of nutrients are found in vegetable peels.

She shared a story about Ireland’s potato famine—during that time it was common for parents to eat the skins of potatoes and give the actual potato to children. But because of that, children were actually more likely to die from malnutrition.

“So when you have a root vegetable or a tuber, that is sugar storage, that is glucose storage for the plant,” said Ceribelli. “What's happening on the outside, that's taking all the minerality from the soil and really getting your food that nutritious quality.”

In addition, peeling vegetables takes a lot of time, and the peels generally end up in the garbage.

"It's time consuming. You're wasting the nutritional value and then nutritional integrity of your food and you're throwing away something that's really important,” she said.

The best part is, if you prep the vegetables correctly, diners won’t even notice, she said.

“You're going to save time, you're going to save labor. Wash those vegetables really well and see what happens,” said Ceribelli.

2. Cross utilize ingredients

Another idea Ceribelli posed is lowering the number of products used on your menu. Her team is creative with cross-utilizing ingredients, which helps to cut waste.

“I would prefer to do fewer things incredibly well than try to do too much. Lower the amount of products that you're bringing into your establishment,” she said, “You would never call our menus repetitive, but they are simplified and they're easy.”

Ceribelli also recommends getting creative with pickling and preserving, in order to avoid waste. One example is Harvest’s pickled avocado sauce, a recipe Ceribelli came up with when she was 18 years old.

“Instead of buying avocados and putting whole avocados on dishes we make pickled avocado sauce. So, it's literally cilantro stems. You mix that with the juice from the banana peppers and pepperoncini [and] add two avocados.”

The team also menus pickled strawberries, peppers and mushrooms—which then gets served with roasted nuts and an array of cheeses.

3. Don’t let leftovers go to waste

Sometimes leftovers are unavoidable, but Ceribelli’s team tries their best to ensure that they don’t go to waste.

One time, Ceribelli was left with an extra case of oranges, but campus was closed. So, she decided to make candied oranges using her heat lamps as a dehydrator.

“I don't have a fancy dehydrator. I literally put them under my lamps and allow them to get like candy or like glass,” she said.

Once dehydrated, the oranges were dipped in sugar and covered with dark chocolate, berries and seeds. Cerebelli ended up handing them out for Christmas and also sold them for retail. 

4. Set realistic goals and get your team involved

Ceribelli emphasized the importance of setting realistic goals.

“Be creative, prioritize food waste reduction, and be honest with yourself about where you're at and gradually make improvements over time. There is no one size fits all,” she said.

In addition, she said operators should rely on their team for creative ideas.

“You do not have to be the holder of all the answers, this should be a collaboration because if everyone is involved, then you're more likely to be successful,” she said.

It’s also important to show your employees that you care about them, she noted.  

“Some employees don't really care about this specifically, but they care that I share it with them and I care,” said Ceribelli. “If I care about them. They care about what we're doing and it will reduce your turnover.”



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