On Designing Nutrition Programs, for Theresa Laurenz

Northwestern's Theresa Laurenz talks about working with students on nutrition plans.

In only one year, Theresa Laurenz has made a big impact as the dietitian for Sodexo at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. One of her many initiatives is working with students—who have special diets or those who want to eat healthier—to develop a meal program that fits their nutritional needs. Laurenz spoke to FSD about how she works with the students to create nutrition programs that work.

Q. What is the first step you take when a student comes to talk about a nutrition plan?

Depending on their dietary issue, we’ll first address any medical needs that they have. If there are medical needs that need to be catered to in the dining hall, a lot of times they’ll work with the chef at that particular dining hall. Ultimately, it is a very personalized, one-on-one session. Whatever their nutritional concern is, we address that and come up with an individual meal and wellness plan. I talk about exercise as well because I have a background in kinesiology. We really talk about all areas of wellness, including sleep and stress. Beyond that initial one-hour appointment with them, I do several follow-up appointments. I’ve had more than 100 students come to see me this year for a meeting.

[If a student comes in that has celiac disease,] I’d first find out when they were diagnosed and how well they know about their own disease. From there, we’ll go through the dining hall and get a tour with the chef, cooks and managers. We show them what things we have available already that they can just take, for instance, gluten-free breads, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, cookies, tortillas, etc. Then for foods that take a bit of extra time, we’ll go over the process to email or call the chefs directly at each of the different dining halls. I ask them to call at least an hour ahead of time and let the chefs know what they would like. Even if something is not on the menu for that day, they can request a gluten-free meal.

Q. What are the most important things a dining department needs to have in place to help students with special dietary needs?

The first thing is education. One other big part of my job is just to make sure that all the staff is well aware of food allergies and how to prevent any contamination, which goes back to some of the basics of cooking. That means the chefs are making sure to avoid cross contamination and following the recipes—if a recipe is not written well, the staff needs to feel comfortable to tell their chef or manager that they don’t know what this recipe is trying to get at and it needs to be rewritten in order to make sense.

Q. What are some of the basics of a good nutrition program?

One thing is to make sure that there are always going to be healthy items available, like always offering a whole grain, steamed vegetable, fresh vegetable and not just relying on the salad bar as the only source of vegetables. Also make sure that you have non-meat options available like beans for people who are trying to eat less meat. Also making sure that the items you serve that are your healthy items are cooked well. Sometimes I go into different dining halls and the healthy items look gross. It goes back to some of the trainings with the employees to make sure that they know how to cook those items. Something that I think we’re going to address is the layout of the dining hall. Sometimes the layout dictates menu choices. The pizza and the burgers are the first things people see. They don’t see that there is a salad bar in the back. Some of it is difficult because we’d have to do major construction, but there are little things you can do like making sure the hot entrée vegetables are not just in a corner somewhere but closer to that grill station where people will see.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter when working with students on these programs?

They are students so sometimes they cancel at the last minute or forget an appointment. Scheduling becomes very tricky because their schedules are all over the place. I make sure to space out the appointments a little more than I would have at the hospital. Also, just being flexible with them. In terms of the students with food allergies, we expect them to take ownership and let the chefs or managers know ahead of time to make their food. Sometimes students either don’t want to be a burden or don’t want to be different from their friends or don’t make time in their schedules to call or email ahead of time so they fall off the wagon. They just resort to things that they know they can have like items from the salad bar.

We’ve gotten some interesting requests, but one that was very difficult was a student who requested a 100% organic diet. That was a tough one for me to say that there is really no way we can do that right now. Even if you were able to pay extra, there’s no way to guarantee that all of your products are going to be organic all year round. So with requests like that you find out what their reasoning is behind wanting to do that and if the statement is for their overall health then talking about their diet and things that they can do even if it’s not organic it can still be healthy.

Q. What kinds of advice would you to give operators who might want to improve their nutrition programming for students?

One of the things that I’ve found to be very helpful is keeping track of the students to make sure they are being proactive. Really encouraging students to use these programs and that they are not being a bother. Also encouraging the staff to make sure they are as friendly and easy to work with as possible. We try and spin it to make the students feel like they are getting this extra special perk rather than they are being a bother, especially if you can give them things that aren’t on the menu.

In only one year, Theresa Laurenz has made a big impact as the dietitian for Sodexo at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. One of her many initiatives is working with students—who have special diets or those who want to eat healthier—to develop a meal program that fits their nutritional needs. Laurenz spoke to FSD about how she works with the students to create nutrition programs that work.