When you think back to the last time you ate out, food waste may not be the first thing that crossed your mind. And yet restaurant customers are a big contributor to the staggering amount of food the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says was wasted in 2010 alone: 133 billion pounds.

That amount of waste is an environmental problem in terms of resource conservation as well as the quantity of garbage going into America’s landfills. But it also plays a role in hunger, and the USDA reports that reducing food waste by 15 percent could provide enough food for more than 25 million food insecure people each year.

POUNDS AND PLATES: For restaurant diners, leftovers are typically left on the table—a surplus they don't think twice about. However, the food wasted accounts for millions of mouths that could otherwise be fed.

More is less

Chef Marc Forgione has seen his share of restaurant food go to waste. He grew up in the industry, working in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant as a teenager, opening his own place in 2008, and winning Iron Chef in 2010. He says part of the restaurant food waste problem is that customers tend to inaccurately view smaller portions as insufficient. As a result, larger portions are served, and they are often more than a person wants or needs to eat.

“The sad truth of it,” says Forgione, “Is that Americans eat with their eyes first. And when you serve a proper portion of 5 to 6 ounces of protein, or enough vegetables as a side to feed two people, the perception is that it doesn't look big enough.”

“Part of the restaurant food waste problem is that customers tend to inaccurately view smaller portions as insufficient.”

Restaurants’ efforts

Food waste isn’t a simple problem to solve, but many restaurants are making an effort. Forgione says, “Something that chefs have been doing forever is trying to use every part of not just the animal but also of the vegetables and herbs too. And donating to food banks whenever possible.”

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, food donation and recycling are the most common ways restaurants are making an effort to reduce waste. But the organization says there are barriers to both donation and recycling, including transportation constraints, limited onsite storage, concerns over liability, regulatory issues, insufficient opportunity to recycle, and management, or building limitations.

Big goals, small steps

In January, the United Nations began implementing seventeen sustainable development goals world leaders adopted in September 2015. Number twelve on that list is to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” by 2030, in part by “halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels.” In response, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency announced that the United States aims to reduce food waste by 50 percent in the same timeframe.

It’s a lofty goal that will only be met if the government, food industry, nonprofits and consumers do their part. Forgione says one small step individuals can take is simply being more thoughtful when dining out. “Order responsibly. Know your limits, and know what you can eat.”