Why the Hospital Cafeteria Could Play a Key Role in Nurse Retention

Written by: Derek Harris

One million nurses will retire in the US by the year 2030. In a mere 8 years, one third of our hospitals’ primary caregivers will be enjoying a well-deserved rest and no longer available to care for society. There are roughly 3 million registered nurses in the United States today and with only 251,000 students enrolled in a baccalaureate level nursing program, ongoing burnout from the pandemic is positioning us for a crippling void in our healthcare system.

So how do we recover?

While we cannot easily convince more citizens to become nurses, we can focus on adapting to a new generation and create a work culture that fits their personalities and encourages retention. This challenge is a marathon not a sprint and without implementing solutions now, the staffing shortage will only expand. Retention will be critical in order to sustain our healthcare ecosystem and by creating a generation specific culture, nurses are perhaps less likely to seek alternative employment or leave the industry all together.  But what is important to our new Millennial and Generation Z nurses? While that list could be quite lengthy, recent data shows the two current generations have made food away from home a large part of their lifestyles. Most hospitals in America feature onsite cafeterias. Healthcare operators are uniquely positioned to differentiate their workplace now by leveraging existing resources and re-imagining the hospital environment. Initially these onsite retail sites were designed to offer a reprieve for staff and visitors alike by helping with meal convenience. But with the boom of quick service restaurants and food delivery, the need of the hospital cafeteria has shifted from a benefit to a necessity. While our current near retirement group (Boomers and Generation X) similarly love a catered meal, the general attitude towards the food experience has evolved.

Hospitals have an amazing opportunity to utilize the cafeteria as a retention catalyst!

Same Skillset, Different Tastes

While Boomers and Generation X played a crucial role with modern advancements in healthcare, we have entered into one of the largest culture shifts in history! Nurses from all generations graduate college with the same medical training but adolescent years rooted in technology, a recession and a 100-year pandemic have created very dramatic viewpoints on dining and work experiences. Dining out is what Millennials and Gen Z find important to spend their money on! In fact, food has become such a massive part of their personalities, the ways they provide themselves a meal or the dollar amount they spend and the experience they expect have shifted generationally more than ever. After reviewing and researching several demographic eating habit surveys, the data is clear on generational differences.

Take a look at a dining out generation comparison:


Dining Out Viewpoints
*Sources Referenced
Percent of Income Spent Food at Home 59.4% 55.5% 53.2% 47.6%
Percent of Income Spent Eating Out 40.6% 44.2% 46.8% 52.4%
Average Monthly Dollar Spent Food Delivery $79 $151 $208 $206
Hospitality Expectation Mealtime is an event, Valued Customer, Not Rushed Traditional Service, Longer Mealtime, Convenience Communal Tables, Fun Experience, Loves a Good Deal, Convenience Spend More on Higher Quality, Fast Service, Non-Communal
Menu Desires Traditional Fast Food, Traditional dishes, Comfort Food, Consistency Nostalgia, Homemade Food, Traditional Fast Food, Processed Foods Variety, Trendy Unprocessed, High Affordable Quality, Loves New, Ethnic Plant Based, Snacks, Diversity, Street Food, Unique Recipes, Health Conscious
Accessibility Minimal Digital Presence, Maintain Comfort Email Marketing, Loyalty Programs, Cash & Credit Cards Video Marketing, Social Media, Digital Ordering, Hybrid Pay All Digital, Word of Mouth, Social Media, Cashless


What Does The Data Tell Us?

It’s safe to say everyone would agree life is much faster and busier than it was 50 years ago. The data shown for each generation supports this. This comparison is blatantly showing us 4 things:

  • Young working adults are spending less on food at home and eating out more
  • Food delivery is heavily utilized by Millennials and Generation Z
  • The days of a giant family sit down dinner are fading away. The new generations want fast, fun, and accessible that takes less time where quality isn’t sacrificed
  • Mom’s meatloaf and comfort food don’t reign supreme anymore! Don’t get me wrong there is still a place in this world for a hearty meal, but our future caregivers seek quick, convenient, fresh, and trendy.

How Do We Use The Data?

It is worth repeating, there is no better way to positively impact your workplace culture than by creating an atmosphere that specifically fits your demographic workforce. Nursing is one of the toughest jobs in our workforce. We will never be able to protect future nurses from the emotional lows that they encounter daily. But what we can do is everything in our power to stand up for them, stand beside them and make the hospital feel a little less cold, a little more comfortable. We are facing a dramatic reduction in qualified nurses and it is imperative to retain each one of them. Start by accommodating a passion of theirs, foodservice. Millennials and Generation Z have the potential to become one of the most impactful groups in history. They are a passionate group and when they feel supported, they will give you their best.

The new generation favors food delivery and dines out more than any generation before. Hospitals, listen closely. Why not capitalize on this opportunity? Why not strengthen your desirability and implement a demand of the generation?  Keep the staff onsite, offer convenience and create options within the hospital that embrace the culture.

Focus on 2 key components:


Millennials and Generation Z are obsessed with quick service food. The irony as compared to past generations is they expect quality. Processed foods need to be minimalized and ingredients should be sourced locally where possible, and freshly prepared. Ensure menus are following specific community tastes offering variety that mimics trends.

2. Accessibility

We have shifted from generations accustomed to an interactive experience to one that expects convenience. Adding more premade and prepackaged food isn’t the answer, but an experience hinged around a seamless transaction and many times impersonal. This is where creativity and leveraging experts becomes critical.

  • High quality freshly made balanced recipes made to order and assembled quickly
  • Non-interactive ordering and checkout options: Mobile order, mobile pay, walk out technology and kiosks
  • Meal delivery! If the new generation has to walk to the cafeteria, many times they will order delivery outside the hospital creating unnecessary traffic. With delivery services at the highest demand consider integrating an in-house delivery service.

Moving Forward

Positioning your cafeteria is not the one secret to remedying the impending nursing shortage and if the idea of re-aligning your cafeteria amidst current chaos seems trivial, that’s ok. Empathetically a lot has happened over the past 2 years and has shaken the foundation of our healthcare system. However, it should go noted that doing nothing with your cafeteria when others are doing a lot could pose retention concerns. Seek out a partner and explore the option of outsourcing, it only costs you a fragment of your time. They’ll do the heavy lifting and it just might be the refresh your hospital needs without breaking the budget. Find someone who understands the new generation and can help you develop a culture where nurses want to build a career. Established partners such as Unidine Healthcare Group are uniquely positioned to cater to the newer generation. They feature 100% of their menu items are made from scratch ingredients, commodity focused purchases relieve supply chain shortages that force frozen meals, purchasing power that combats inflation, programs that are independently built to integrate with the individual community and as a division of the largest contract partner in the world technology resources are unparalleled. The next generation will make an enormous positive impact in the world. Even if it seems small, consider how you can welcome them in.