Reducing food waste is serious for executive directors and dining managers—more than half in our Forecast Report survey named it their top concern. Lower waste is a marker of resident satisfaction, operational excellence, and reaching sustainability goals.
To help in the ongoing quest, experts Dana Fillmore, RD, healthcare customer marketing manager at Gordon Food Service and Amy Wootton, RDN, director of nutrition at MatrixCare, share tips, both new and tried and true
Resident preferences are the first priority, both say. Tracking these accurately leads to efficiency in the rest of dining.
Wootton breaks down food efficiency into four categories to watch: purchase planning, preference monitoring, prep control, and portion sizes. Residents, and residents’ tastes, change, so keeping up with preference data, even day-to-day, is key. You’ll buy the right products as well as raise resident quality of life.
Culinary skills for kitchen staff are a good investment, Fillmore says. For instance, good knife skills make a surprisingly big difference in more precise use of products, particularly with pricey produce such as strawberries.
Tracking orders and data using mobile devices and tablets can be a draw for dining services staff, especially for the younger workforce often found in senior living dining, Wootton says. Knowing preferences equals more correct orders, which appeals to workers and residents alike. Software such as MatrixCare’s MealTracker remembers preferences and prompts servers to offer favorites—for instance, if they prefer fish on Fridays, or fruit for dessert. Having preferences stored increases personalization even when servers change.
Check your storage: The material from which the container is made as well as its shape and size affects the safety, quality, and shelf life of all food products, but fruits and vegetables in particular. Where you store food, in the kitchen or the cooler, is extremely important. Fillmore recommends some apps and calculators: At markon.com, under “Resources,” you’ll find the Virtual Cooler, which shows how to load a walk-in for best results; and the Cambro.com/app calculates the best storage container size and shape for maximum safe shelf life.
Synching technology makes the difference in food waste, Wootton says. The data for the community, the vendor partners, purchasing, cost tracking, inventory—the more systems align, the more efficiency. Synching dietary software to census can help. “Having a dietary software program can help conquer that balancing act between how much to buy, what to buy, what residents prefer, and what I have on hand,” Wootton says.
Adapt recipes, says Fillmore. “Your menu might have five different types of cheeses, and maybe you can alter your recipes a bit so that you’re using one or two kinds—look for the overlap,” Fillmore says. “In training, we talk about ‘root to stem,’ using every part of the vegetable, and also about cross-utilization.”
Scale up or down to the size of your community and make safe adaptations and substitutions. Match your spreadsheets to your recipes, Wootton says.
“Having portion control not be a guessing game is definitely a way to reduce food waste,” says Wootton. Consider that an average meal may cost around $5, and costs quickly add up if the number of meals or portion control is off. Correct portion size is not just what you see on the plate—it affects every step: purchasing amounts, culinary time and labor, resident satisfaction, and purchasing changes.
Follow numbers, not intuition. Creativity matters in the kitchen but reducing food waste is about calculation. Fillmore cites this example: Which is the better solution, pre-chopped lettuce or whole heads? Measure all the factors: Pre-chopped is lighter and uses less fuel to deliver, it can save a community water and labor time, and it can even be safer and better quality. The best choices are rooted in the needs of your individual community and provider, she emphasizes.
Both Fillmore and Wootton also talk about the importance of teamwork—not only the full dining team, but residents, activity directors, dietitians, and more. Set a goal and share your numbers; with residents more aware of sustainability and efficiency, they may become the best allies.