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Managing dining room waste in senior living facilities [Podcast]

In this episode of The Boelter Wire, we're joined by Shelly Sievert, Boelter's Director of Business Development. Shelly discusses the issues surrounding food waste in a senior living dining room and identifies the fundamental steps that a senior living dining room administrator can take to properly manage them.

To work with a Boelter expert on your senior living dining operation, contact us today.

Download Industry Perspective - Senior LivingExcerpts

Let's start talking about the idea of spending waste. What does that mean and how can it be avoided for a senior living dining facility? What are the steps that a dining room manager could be taking to avoid spending too much in their kitchen?

Shelly: Senior living providers seek to optimize dining from a cost perspective. They should adopt practices that are common throughout the restaurant world. To control dining budgets, senior living providers have to track food spending at each step, from ordering and inventory to when the food is served to residents. Restaurant managers closely monitor spending to avoid wild variation from month to month. The same can be done by the culinary team at any senior living community. Tracking food costs per resident or patient day is a great way to do this, but you should also really know how much is being spent on each plate of food. Similar to how many other restaurants ensure that they're turning a profit.

It all starts with good menu management. When you look at doing a special dish to keeping comfort foods on the menu, which is very popular in senior living, you want to work with a menu management system that can help reduce food waste.

When looking at the cost of everything, take into account how much is being ordered at a time. For instance, if you're going to do a special meal like shrimp and grits, maybe only order enough shrimp and grits for one or two meals or understand how you can repurpose the extra food.

They should narrow their target as much as they can to the budget dollar. That way they can attempt to order exactly as much food as they might use. This could be a difficult goal to achieve, but it really is worth the benefit of time. They could consider having things like par levels of the commonly used items, so that when they’re ordering, they just order to keep that par level.

They can also consider using a menu planning tool that can assist with balancing required nutritional levels for residents and the costs associated with that. Most major food providers will have a menu system or a menu planning tool, or the senior living provider can work with their GPO. The GPOs often have menu systems, but they also will have third party companies. Most of the time it's done through software and it usually is very user-friendly. It's a tool that's going to be used when cooking large batches of food, so it will be specific more often towards communities like senior living or hospitals or universities.

Some of the other benefits of better managing their food budget is that it can result in additional money being made available for new and creative menu ideas or even better ingredients. For instance, with a better management of the budget, the food service director may find that they've got money in their budget to purchase some higher end steaks and do a special steak meal. For instance, a lot of places do special things for both Mother’s and Father’s Day.

Another thought with the money saved is that they might be able to take that money and use it towards rewarding the staff. We all know that finding and keeping good staff is a challenge across all areas of foodservice. If they save a little bit of money, maybe once a month they do a special cookout for their staff where they provide a special meal, or maybe they've got a reward system in a different way that is meaningful to their own staff.

In the end, it's really all about the residents. Make sure that they are happy from day to day and from one meal to the next.


Let's shift to the idea of waste in the more traditional sense. I came across an article that was estimating up to 250 pounds of food waste per day across senior living facilities located in a single state. Then if we take that number and multiply it by the total number of senior living facilities across the entire US currently in operation, that's a huge amount of food waste.

Shelly: You are absolutely correct. Food waste is something that is being talked about more than just in senior living. I read an article today about food waste in restaurants, but more specifically in hospitals and campuses.

Globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over a third of all food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted. That amounts to 1.3 billion pounds of food annually. And even worse, global hunger is on the rise. All that food that's being wasted means that we're not being good stewards of our food supplies. It's one of the easiest things that we can do to improve our global impact.Globally, over a third of all food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted.

When we look at the restaurant industry, according to the USDA, they are wasting over $162 billion a year on food. It might be stating the obvious, but food waste disrupts the bottom line of a restaurant in a significant way.

And that of course then is carried over into every aspect of foodservice. The cost associated with food waste really does directly impact the overall expenses required to take care of seniors and to have them live comfortably within their communities. And we know that after labor, food is the biggest area of spend in a senior living community.


There's also this notion of pre- and post-consumer food waste. Pre-consumer waste is food that never even leaves the kitchen, where post-consumer waste is food that was prepared, purchased and served to a customer, but then never eaten. So can this same idea also be applied to a senior living facility?

Shelly: Absolutely. They really are two different areas to look at when it comes to food waste.

When you're looking at reducing your food waste pre-consumer, you need to look at evaluating inventory to verify that the orders that are being placed aren't too large. You also want to make sure that the foodservice team is maximizing shelf life and perishables. One of the ways to do that is to make sure that the food is always dated and then it's rotated – the first-in-first-out concept. 

There are some other things that can definitely happen, like being creative and repurposing ingredients. For instance, maybe on Tuesday night you serve a broccoli as your vegetable of the day and then on Wednesday you offer a broccoli cheddar soup. You could also look at offering bread, then using it to make croutons for the salads. Or leftover meat, turning it into soup, or meat that is not exactly the most attractive and turning it into a broth. There are a lot of different ways that you can reuse or be creative with that food that's leftover.

Train your staff to understand the importance of food waste. Behaviors are the hardest piece of this to change. Talking with other communities is a great way to get ideas, but ask your staff what are their ideas on how they can prevent some of that pre-consumer food waste. Get them involved, give them some buy-in and show that you do appreciate their feedback. Do not shy away from asking your staff because they may have ideas that you never thought of.

Keep stock well-organized, making sure that the perishables are being used in a timely manner. Storage is always at a premium. When you ask any senior living provider what they wish they had more of besides staff, a lot of times they'll say storage. Ask your vendor partners for ideas on storage. There are always new things coming out in the industry, new ways to maximize space. Being able to keep your fingers on the pulse of these new trends may help actually help you use your food in a more timely manner.

Offer staff leftover meals or other vegetables that maybe they can take home at either a reduced rate or for free. You can use them as well. Plus, if you can offer staff some food that maybe didn't go over very well for a dollar or two, you can use that towards your overall food budget.

Moving into post-consumer waste. Monitor the portion sizes that you're giving to somebody in the dining room. You could try a scale, or you can also use the pre-measured scoops or spoons. They're called spoodles or loons depending on the style.

Managing resident expectations to make sure that they're fully aware of each menu item can also help make sure that food doesn't come back to the kitchen, which more than likely means it's going to be tossed and new food will be sent out.

Using a resident council when planning your menu is key because they can help get the word out. If you're doing something a little different on the menu, the residents already see that new item on the menu. It's hard enough to get five people to agree, let alone 250 people to agree! [Resident councils] are nominated or elected by the rest of the residents and then they come to some different food planning meetings. They'll give their feedback.

When it comes to senior living dining, you have to remember that these residents live in your restaurant, essentially. They're there for potentially three meals a day. Getting them involved, asking them those questions is also a great way to show them that you value what they have to say and that you care about their experience as much as if they go to a five star restaurant.Getting residents involved is also a great way to show them that you care about their experience as much as if they go to a five star restaurant.

Another thing that will be able to tell you whether to spend the money to put a meal on the menu again is to do what I like to call – and I'm actually stealing this from somebody who used it once – a garbage can review. As your staff is clearing plates, you have somebody standing next to the garbage can. Require your staff to bring the food back to that garbage can and they still go about their normal business. They scrape the plates. As they're scraping, you can make notes of what went over and what didn’t. The garbage can audit is such a simple way to start noticing trends. It doesn't require anything complex like having a scale.

The final thing that can also help with post-consumer food waste is offering the residents to take the food back to their rooms to have as a snack later in the day. Or maybe they are having a really great discussion at lunch and instead of eating, they decide that they want to pack their food up. In a couple of hours when they're hungry again, they can just eat that as opposed to having to ask for another snack or eating their own food from their own refrigerators or going down to your bistro or another area to purchase something.

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The Boelter Wire

The Boelter Wire is an episodic podcast that focuses on thought-leadership conversations with industry experts and established partners, and is designed to help listeners evolve their business, stay competitive and pursue their passions.

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