Lunch from scratch

One-third of operators expect to increase lunch from scratch in the next two years.

Three out of 10 operators say they will increase their use of from-scratch cooking in the next two years, according to The Big Picture. Schools are the most likely to expect an increase, at 43%.

Across segments, 34% of respondents indicate that they expect to increase from-scratch cooking of lunch items in the next year. Among these respondents, the top reasons for the increase of from-scratch lunch items are it’s healthier, fresher and more cost-effective. Only 3% of respondents indicate that they plan to decrease their use of from-scratch cooking of lunch options.

Schools were the most likely segment to plan to increase from-scratch lunch cooking, at 43%. More than half of school operators selected “it’s the direction the industry is moving in” as one of their main reasons for the increase. 

But some operators from schools tell us that staff availability and training interfere with execution. “My biggest challenge at this point is staffing,” explains Vincent Beltrone, foodservice manager for the Lyons Central School District, in New York. With preparation of approximately 25% of menu items from scratch, Beltrone desires to do more. He is working with a third-party organization, FoodLink, to incorporate as much local produce as possible and is sending staff members to training programs but shares that “we’re not there yet.” 

Paige Holland, school nutrition director for the Habersham County Schools, in Georgia, echoes Beltrone’s sentiments because “a lot of people don’t cook anymore, especially the younger folks that work in our program; they don’t have the skill set.” Like Beltrone, Holland has worked to incorporate fresh products into menus at the 14 schools in her district, including local produce and scratch-prepared chili and spaghetti sauce. She currently produces about 45% of her lunch menu items from scratch. 

The survey found that, at nearly 40%, college respondents also desire to increase from-scratch preparation. But like their school counterparts, college directors tell us time and employee skill set hinder the increase, as does cost and lack of equipment. 

“Time and talent are huge factors in our operations when it comes to scratch cooking,” shares Janna Traver, executive chef and assistant director of dining services at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence. Because many student workers are on staff, “most recipes need to be simple enough for a novice to complete with little supervision,” she explains. Currently the dining service team at Kansas prepares roughly 90% of its items from scratch, including lasagna, soup stocks and sauces, but Traver has her sights set on increasing that figure, citing the increase in student awareness. “Our students are more savvy. They are more aware of the nutritional advantages of eating scratch products versus ‘fast food.’” 

And while 28% of respondents within the B&I segment and 22% of respondents within the retirement homes/senior living segments indicate they plan to increase from-scratch cooking, the survey also finds that 72% of B&I lunch menus and 80% of retirement home/senior living lunch menus are already prepared from scratch. It’s “all we’ve ever done,” explains Julie Stewart, foodservice manager at SAS, in Cary, N.C., whose menu currently consists of 70% to 80% scratch-prepped items. “We want things to be fresh and prepared in house … it gives us so much more flexibility.”

The residents of Pennswood Village, in Newton, Pa., drive from-scratch preparation, according to Mary Cooley, director for dining services. “Our clientele is very health conscious and like to be involved and have a say in what the menus are,” she explains. 

While staff currently prepares about 95% of menu items from scratch, including entreés, soups and vegetables, Cooley finds that delivering flavorful, satisfying foods while meeting resident dietary needs can be an obstacle. The staff prepares some gluten-free and low-sodium dishes, but when it comes to the texture of some chewier cuts of meat, such as London broil, “it’s a challenge trying to find products that are well-tolerated by residents,” she explains.

Residents also inspire Todd Hollander, director of dining services and events at John Knox Village, in Lee’s Summit, Mo., to increase from-scratch preparation. Due to staffing issues and consistency concerns, Hollander and his team currently prepares between 30% and 40% of menu items from scratch. “We’re a mixed kitchen [meaning we do a mix of from scratch and not from scratch], so we try to be smart about what we’re doing from scratch,” he says, taking into consideration labor dollars, quality, health benefits and consistency. 

But Hollander can foresee that the tastes of the boomer generation, now entering facilities like John Knox Village, will be a reason to increase from-scratch preparation. “They want fresher products and higher quality than premade products can offer—their expectations are different,” he explains.

Health and freshness top reasons operators plan to increase from-scratch lunch preparation

On average, what percent of the lunch items served are made from scratch?

Use of from-scratch cooking for lunch in the next year will: