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The Covid pandemic has sent shockwaves through every segment of society and nursing home operators have been hit especially hard. We are dealing with an unprecedented crisis and many unknowns will continue to shape and influence the coming weeks and months. Despite this, 55% of healthcare foodservice managers are worried, but fairly confident their operation will get through this in one piece. However, the US Department of Agriculture forecasts that the Consumer Price Index for Food will increase 2-4% in 2021 and the potential for shortages, supply chain disruptions, and volatile costs are all but certain to continue. We must, therefore, take steps now to protect our ability to provide nutritious meals to people within the current economic constraints we are facing. Taking a critical look at your menu today can do just that.

The menu remains the backbone of any kitchen operation and serves as the goalposts for budgeting, managing inventory & purchasing, utilizing kitchen equipment, staffing the operation, and providing adequate nutrition. There are a number of key principles and emerging best practices to apply in today’s “new normal” Covid environment.

Seven Things You Can Do Now to Help Manage Food Costs

1. Consider consolidating the menu to a 3- or 4-week cycle.
▪ Simply put, it costs less and is easier to manage a smaller inventory. Utilizing descending dollar reports and following optimization recommendations from your food management program provider will help consolidate the ingredients to produce such a menu. Planning the menu to cover a shorter time period, 3-4 months vs. 6 months for a typical operating cycle, can reduce redundancy and resident menu fatigue. A menu with more simplified recipes that are easier to follow will also have fewer ingredients. This has the added benefit of producing a meal with a leaner crew or by persons with less experience or training.

2. Identify unpopular menu items with poor acceptance rates and revise.
▪ Plate waste and untouched meals are literally throwing money down the drain. Poor intakes due to resident preferences also contribute to inadequate nutritional intake and increase the labor required to identify and prepare something else to be consumed. The easiest and simplest way to do this is through visual estimates from your staff and by making routine meal rounds. Focus on meal quality instead of providing an especially wide variety of menu items.

3. Build more flexibility into the menu.
▪ Plan into the menu cycle “alternatives” and more generic meal items that will allow food preparation staff a chance to utilize what’s in inventory. Review and update policies and practices that allow staff to make last-minute menu substitutes to better respond to resident preferences and potential supply issues.

4. Keep your primary vendors and GPO contacts on speed dial.
▪ It’s more important than ever to build a strong relationship with your primary vendors and a Group Purchasing Organization (GPO)—and to seek their input and resources. Utilize their powerful analytical data tools to get real-time cost reports and optimization recommendations for maximizing utilizing the menu to manage costs during the covid pandemic 2 manufacturer rebates and other incentives. If you have not had a 360-business review in the last 6 months, request one. Ask about excess inventories from underperforming foodservice segments restaurants, hotels, convention venues, sports arenas) that may offer the value that didn’t exist before the pandemic.

5. Consider what’s going on in the economics of the national food supply markets.
▪ Meatpacking processors have recovered quicker than expected since hitting their lowest levels in April and manufacturers continue to implement CDC guidance measures to reduce Covid infections among workers. But the potential for shortages is not limited to the meat industry. Review current and widely available market updates on pricing and supply.
▪ Run daily menu item cost reports from your menu management systems and pinpoint exact items with high price variances. Go back into the menu and plan alternatives and adjust your order guide. Meat protein products account for some of the largest percentages of raw food costs and careful planning of substitutions can continue to provide adequate nutrition and variety. Industry forecasters have been suggesting that now is a good time to plan more plant-based protein alternatives and seafood into your menus.

6. Condition stakeholders to the possibility of short notice or more frequent changes to the menu.
▪ Learn to speak the language of your CFO, COO, and show them the numbers and tools that you are using to save/manage costs. Your residents and family members have already had much taken from them during the Covid crisis and it’s important to communicate regularly about why changes might be occurring and get their input. By documenting these exchanges, the possibility of running into regulatory scrutiny or a rise in the resident complaint can be minimized. In addition, attitudes and expectations are changing as the nation re-emerges in this new Covid world and customers might be more understanding and supportive of the challenges being faced to feed this vulnerable population.

7. Ensure that regulations and nutritional standards are maintained.
▪ While customer satisfaction remains an important driver of the industry’s core values, newer concerns have shifted to providing adequate nutrition therapy in the prevention of malnutrition, hunger, and isolation. Menus altered for a crisis situation must continue to meet regulations.

Although there are numerous ways to find cost efficiencies within your foodservice operation, these seven tips offer an accessible and sharper focus on utilizing the menu as a vehicle for staying the course ahead. The Dietary Solutions team has built its approach to helping organizations look strategically at their menus and develop actionable steps to continue to provide nutritious meals while managing uncertain economic influences.


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