The reason your dietary department can’t rebound from the pandemic and 3 ways to fix it.

If we could only get back to how things were before the pandemic. How many times have we heard this phrase? Some things have improved since 2020 but for many healthcare dietary departments, organizations are caught between a distant memory of how things were and a new normal they don’t understand. Nutrition departments still remain understaffed, service expectations have changed, inflation has reached unprecedented highs and supply chain is unyielding with shortages. Not to mention, many organizations now employ a younger population, and the institutions are now seeing greater diversity in the demographics they serve and these individuals simply want more than the old, stale cafeteria-style food (the typical patient and employee meal experience).[i]

Just look at the data:

  • The hospitality industry still has the highest resignation rates at 5.4% and unemployment of 4.8%[ii]
  • Younger generations spend over 50% of their income eating out now with the expectation of fast service and higher quality[iii]
  • There has been a historical 8.0% annual growth in food away-from-home costs [iv]
  • 5% of executives feel we are still years away from supply chain normalization[v]

The economic pains of the above facts are real, especially for care facilities looking to compare the status of their current nutrition department to its prior “normal” state in 2019. But what is considered normal now and what are the right benchmarks to compare success to today? We are nearly three years removed from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and regardless of the induced situation, perhaps the reason your nutrition department isn’t thriving is no longer a symptom of the pandemic. Maybe it just hasn’t evolved. No matter what standard we are hoping to return to, much of society has changed the definition of “normal”.

Post-Pandemic Society Norms

  1. Staffing challenges will remain for the service industries as U.S. citizens will continue to make working from home the top priority
    1. 17% of U.S. employees worked from home pre-pandemic, 45% of full-time U.S. employees work from home now[vi]
  2. An increased sense of overall autonomy among people
    1. Society’s new normal has become quick service, get what they want on their own terms without sacrificing quality
  3. Heightened desires for in-person interactions
    1. Lengthy isolations have created a revived desire for in-person experiences
  4. “Silent” experiences[vii]
    1. People seek excellent customer service but have become accustomed to self-service models, such as online ordering and mobile pay.

Each of these new norms translates to every facet of life, regardless of the venue. The key to evolving a nutrition program past the point of “getting by” is to integrate the new norms while continuing to embrace the specific culture served. Ignoring this new reality may ultimately result in lower employee retention, reduced satisfaction scores, decrease in patient census and lost profit. Rebounding your nutrition program needs innovation and demands a shift in strategic vision. It begins with a mindset change and a willingness to re-invent rather than trying to re-establish.

Three New Ways to Think About Your Program and Build a Stronger Offering

  1. “You’re no longer understaffed…You are overbooked”

Many healthcare providers may not get to choose their patient volume and census varies most days, but there must come a point when “understaffed” is no longer the excuse for reduced nutrition programming, excessive overtime or disrupted patient care. There is still a fine line when you really are understaffed and safety is a concern but realigning the vision will help to navigate these challenges. For example, restaurants who have the capacity to seat 100 patrons but can only provide staff for 50 guests officially means they are overbooked. That doesn’t mean they have to reduce the number of patrons served or a loss in revenue. It is an opportunity to change the way some experiences are offered by taking key parts of the dining experience and augmenting them with efficiencies such as QR codes for ordering or self-pay at the table. Similarly in healthcare, shifting to a mindset of “Overbooked “could mean:

  • Incorporating innovative technologies to create less workload for the staff you do have
    • Room service ordering systems increase efficiency and reduce the demand on nurses, freeing up time to focus on other areas of patient care
  • Redeveloping how you prepare menus
    • Consider transitioning to a professional culinary program: Making food from scratch and employing artisans rather than employees allows for improved menu offerings and helps minimize supply shortages that are associated with frozen, pre-made food.
  • Consider implementing unattended retail spaces or converting the entire retail space to self-service
    • Self-checkout markets filled with fresh hot or cold food created by the culinary team
  • Offsetting demand influxes, control workflow and fill staffing voids
    • Mobile ordering for facility staff with assigned pickup times
  1. “Move forward, not backwards”

If you’ve been endlessly seeking to get back to a level of service that shined 3 years ago, perhaps it is time to envision how a new version of your food program could look moving forward. A lot of desires have changed since the pandemic. It is time to embrace it and build a program that supports your specific demographics within the confines of your abilities.  Rather than remain fixated on how things were, focus on:

  • Remove your outdated vending machines and realign with retail options that create different experiences
    • Coffee bars and C-Stores
  • Remove self-dependence by augmenting your retail program with community pop-up restaurants
  • Partner with a contracted provider to develop a custom program built around community demands and provides financial backing
    • Compass Group uses E15 market research to drive effective strategies for clients and customize programs to fit the needs of partnered communities
  1. “Don’t work inside a box, there are people that know how to help”

If oversight of the dietary department is consuming the executive team’s schedule, a partner who solely focuses on healthcare nutrition and dining management can help alleviate this burden, allowing leadership teams to focus on other key operating departments. Contrary to some beliefs, outsourcing the dietary department doesn’t have to feel like you are losing your identity. The care providers that have struggled the most since the pandemic are smaller community hospitals where employee prospects are minimal, and resources are not as abundant. Finding a partner that is designed for your organization’s size and scope can build a program that will move you forward and remove the rigorous cycles the pandemic has caused. For example, Unidine’s healthcare programs specifically focus on rural community hospitals where the average census is under 100 and drives solutions that inject modern, focused program offerings into community nutrition departments.

  • 100% fresh from scratch cooking
  • ReadyFresh™ mobile ordering and pickup (A nurse favorite!)
  • MyDine™ tablet-based room service ordering system
  • Unattended retail spaces stocked with scratch; house made items
  • Custom coffee bars designed and implemented by our in-house design team, The HUB™
  • Staffing and menu planning systems to reduce labor, create efficiencies


A lot of time has passed with a great deal of change in the past few years, but eventually we have to accept where things are and evolve our processes to represent the times. There is no single solution to the multitude of roadblocks the service industry has encountered in the past 3 years. Too many healthcare facilities are still seeking answers to recoup their nutrition department. Assess why the nutrition department isn’t thriving and consider evaluating solutions viewed through a different lens. Change is scary, change is inevitable. But if we continue to build solutions based upon an antiquated model, the culture and future of your organization could suffer. Healthcare is vital to our communities and the nutrition program plays an integral part in the healing process.

[i] Harris, Derek (2022, February 23) Why the hospital cafeteria could play a key role in nurse retention. Retrieved from:

[ii] Ferguson, Stephanie (2022, Septembe 7) Understanding America’s Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries. Retrieved from:

[iii]Harris, Derek (2022, February 23) Why the hospital cafeteria could play a key role in nurse retention. Retrieved from:

[iv] USDA Staff (2022, September 23) Summary Findings Food Price Outlook, 2022 and 2023. Retrieved from:,percent%20higher%20than%20August%202021.

[v] Carl Marks Advisors and SupplyChainBrain. Supply Chains Unlikely to Stabilize Until First Half of 2024 or Beyond, According to New Survey. Retrieved from:

[vi] Tate, Nick (2022) The Pandemic Has Changed Us, Permanently. Retrieved from:

[vii] Politico Staff (2021, December 10). 17 pandemic innovations that are here to stay. Retrieved from: