How to battle residential dining challenges

How operators at residential facilities tackle unique challenges.

rice breakfast

Balancing diners’ interests and health Monday through Friday is a challenge across all types of foodservice. But residential facilities—whether they be boarding schools or long-term medical care—feed a truly captive audience, three meals a day, seven days a week, oftentimes 365 days a year.

“While I may be responsible for fewer students than a director running a multi-school operation in a large district, our choices affect the majority of each student’s weekly intake, and that is a big responsibility,” says Christopher Unold, director of nutritional services at Summit School in Upper Nyack, N.Y., which serves 115 residential students 7 days a week and 45 day students 5 days a week.

Operators in residential dining face unique challenges, such as combating food fatigue and balancing nutritional needs with cravings for the comforting food of home. Though pleasing everyone all the time seemingly is impossible, that’s the mission directors such as Unold have chosen to accept. Here’s a look at how they do it, meal after meal, day after day.

Choice is king

As the owner of Starving Student Catering, Bruce Schaefer manages foodservice for multiple fraternities as well as American University Preparatory School, a new international college prep program in Los Angeles. Because the boarding school’s kitchens are not scheduled to open until this fall, Schaefer and his team have prepared all meals off-site in a Studio City, Calif., catering kitchen for the school’s first two years of operation.

“Since it is an international boarding school, we have people from around the world, and they all have their own specific tastes and wants and needs,” Schaefer says. He’s picked up on the leanings of students from different countries. AU’s European students prefer their veggies crudite-style or lightly blanched. Taiwanese students tend to ask for more rice, including at breakfast—an American breakfast of eggs and bacon wouldn’t make them feel at home. “They’re used to a more dinner-type meal than we would think of for breakfast,” Schaefer says.

Because tastes vary so widely across the student body, Schaefer considers any dish a success if at least 50% of students like it. Offering uncommon proteins with every meal goes a long way to accommodate personal preferences, he says.

Nutrition vs. nostalgia

Providing the comforts of home while still meeting National School Lunch Program guidelines is a constant challenge, especially in the case of special events and holidays. Summit hosts a Heritage Day celebration twice a year to give students an opportunity to share a taste of home. “Students are asked to provide recipes from home, and we prepare a fun meal incorporating traditional foods of their culture,” Unold says. Jamaican, Israeli, Polish and Dominican recipes have been featured in the past.

Unold has found that from-scratch cooking is his best tool to adhere to requirements. But oftentimes, concessions have to be made, frustrating both staff and students. “For example, [sometimes] a student really wants a meal that reminds him or her of home, but we have to modify their mom’s special recipe to meet the requirements,” Unold adds.

Schaefer contrasts richer comfort foods with lighter fare. “If we’re doing something with gravy on it, we won’t also do a casserole-style potato with cheese; we’ll do more lightly cooked sides,” he says.

Investing in involvement

In addition to staff, students also work on Summit’s serving line as a way to engage their peers in dining choices. Those young servers become a prime source to tap for honest feedback. “I have an open-door policy with our students,” Unold says. “I am in the dining hall every day, and I can observe what is going on the plates and what is getting passed up or thrown out.” Summit’s school dietitian fields feedback as she connects one-on-one with students, and Unold visits health classes to invite students to plan a week’s menu.

Though residential foodservice has its challenges, it also has its rewards, says Schaefer. “The most rewarding, I would have to say, is just being able to feed the young mind. We’re trying not only to just feed them, but make them smarter,” he says. Next school year, he plans to launch a program with bulletin boards promoting rotating featured foods from different regions of the world. “It’s something they can look back on and say, ‘I tried all these cool things,’” Schaefer says. “They’re there to learn, whether it be from the food or from the teachers.” 

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