New Year, New Budget: 4 ways to control food costs

Resident InspectingThe Dining Services department is one of, if not the, largest operational expense in a community and arguably the largest impact on resident satisfaction.  As the New Year begins community-dining departments have a new budget to manage, as well as new expectations to make improvements in quality. Now is a good time to take a good look at some of the pressure points (opportunities) in the dining department:

  • It is the area of operations that touches every resident at least once if not three times a day.
  • It represents  hundreds of opportunities each day to get things not quite right, or perhaps more accurately hundreds of opportunities a day for residents and families to complain about something tangible.
  • Because tastes and preferences vary so much, the same meal served the same way can be exquisite, horrible or just ok.  The same meal can be too hot, too cold or just right. 
  • Dining services is a significant cost center in terms of people and consumables.  There are lots of opportunities for waste and theft. 
  • It’s not all bad stuff – Your dining program can also be the place you can really differentiate your community from those around you.

Reducing Costs
Back at the last Leading Age conference in Boston, I was  talking with RonnDa Peters and David Koelling, principals of Strategic Dining Services, about how they help senior living communities reduce food costs.  As we chatted, I asked them if they would be willing to share some suggestions that communities could implement immediately and would have a positive affect on their expenses for the year.  

Their preamble for these suggestions was that none of them are about reducing the quality of the food or service.  They feel strongly that in many respects these suggestions will make you and your dining team more mindful of how they serve residents and as a result can both reduce costs and improve quality.

1.    Review the 20 items you purchase the most of – typically this will represent about ½ of your total food budget.  Your broad line food vendor should be able to provide you this list.   You should look for ways to consolidate, for overcharges and should see if there are less expensive alternatives.

2.    Review your daily labor – What the Strategic Dining Service team often finds is there is a great deal of variability in staffing and staffing costs from day to day.  Sometimes this is done to accommodate a special event, but often it ends up having more to do with the convenience of the dining staff.  The result is uneven staffing, uneven quality and unnecessary overtime.  Using an online scheduling tool can make monitoring and managing dining staff costs a lot easier.

3.    Ask the kitchen staff to keep all leftovers until the next day – Nothing should hit the garbage until the next day. There are two huge reasons for this.  The first is that some of those leftovers can be re-purposed or reused.  The second is that often the dinner leftovers are prepared by dining service workers who have gone home by the time dinner is over.  They may have no idea how much extra food they are preparing, and wasting.  Another less popular but all to real factor can be intentional overage.  Staff may intentionally over-prepare food knowing they can take home extras. Consider how your policies about taking home left-overs could be encouraging what amounts to theft.

4.    Review your third party management company line item bill – If you are using a third party partner food service provider you need to carefully review each months bill to ensure you are receiving what you paid for. Watch for an unintentional creep  and you may find items that should not be there.

By engaging with just these four methods, you can help your community reduce food costs by 5-7 percent.

Do you have any other things that you have done to cut food costs without compromising quality or service? If so, please drop us an email at to share your ideas.


About Strategic Dining Services:

Strategic provides dining service and hospitality management support according to the unique needs its clients. The Strategic difference in the support delivered not only focuses on successful systems, techniques and tools, but improves the community’s outcome in quality dining experiences, community cost savings, increased resident referrals, as well as resident and employee satisfaction. for more information visit their website at

 About the Author: Kevin McIntosh has more than a decade of experience in the Point of Sale and Privilege Management (meal & spending plans) market for senior living providers and has provided consulting services and developed innovations for customers to help shape what is possible today.