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Beef is important to institutional menus

Rick Purnell Published on 24 April 2014

Beef’s versatility, client demand ensures it holds its own among other proteins

Consistently preparing high-quality, healthful and tasty meals challenges the best family cook.

For professionals feeding hungry students, patients on the mend, executives in corporate cafeterias and others in institutional settings, it can be daunting.

Dave Zino

Dave Zino
executive chef,
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

The most common challenge institutional chefs, dietitians and menu planners face is creating healthful meals at a time when their budgets are shrinking and food costs are rising, according to Dave Zino, executive chef for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), contractor for the beef checkoff program.

He says this requires food professionals to seek creative solutions, especially with protein sources.

“The primary consideration for protein choice depends on the institution and its audience,” Zino says. “Ground beef often makes a lot of sense in schools because of cost considerations. More whole-muscle choices are likely more available in corporate dining.”

While dollars may be closely watched, foodservice professionals continue to meet high demand for beef and maintain a healthy bottom line as well. That’s reassuring as some may fear beef could lose ground as budgets get squeezed.

D. Scott Brinker

D. Soctt Brinker
Assistant director of food and nutrition services and executive chef
Rapid City Regional Hospital

D. Scott Brinker is the assistant director of food and nutrition services and executive chef for Rapid City Regional Hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota.

With more than 15 years of experience as an executive chef and pastry chef, and experience with commercial foodservice firms, his culinary and chemistry degrees bring a well-honed perspective into menu planning and food selection.

He is overseeing construction of new kitchen facilities for the 330-bed facility while training staff to transition from traditional hospital-type food products to using more fresh produce and more fresh meat.

Help people heal

“For basic hospital meals, our obligation is to satisfy nutritional needs while realizing people are sick and if they don’t eat, they’re not going to get better,” Brinker says.

“We’ve got to put a product on the plate that’s appetizing for somebody who doesn’t feel much like eating. In other words, you’ve got to help patients burn through that sick feeling and give their food some eye appeal.

Our employees have important jobs, and what we send up makes a big difference.

“That’s one reason why more and more hospitals are taking the same approach we are – using more fresh ingredients and working on the presentation of the food so patients will be more inclined to eat it.”

Keeping the right amount of protein on those plates means balancing patient nutritional needs and preferences, cafeteria customers’ preferences and budgeting.

“Hospital foodservice is considered an expense,” Brinker says. “Our budgets are constantly being squeezed. However, this is South Dakota and people want beef on the menu.

The average stay in the hospital is 5.5 days, so we do our best to ensure patients don’t see the same thing twice during that time.

“For patients’ families who use our cafeteria, we need a lot of variety, but I always want a ‘comfort food’ on the menu – something that everybody from Rapid City is going to recognize and like,” he says.

Beef fits this need well, Brinker adds. Ground beef, for example, can be served as hamburgers, spaghetti and Salisbury steak.

This flexibility lets patients enjoy different flavor profiles from the same type of meat and helps him manage budgeting.

Zino concurs. In fact, the Beef Checkoff recently introduced new ground beef recipes for institutional settings that include wraps, chili and noodle dishes.

In addition, Zino encourages operators to consider shredded beef for barbecue, burritos and other cost-effective, tasty dishes.

Sophisticated school kids

Getting ill patients to eat might be tough, but making sure school kids get the right amount of food and quality nutrition can be tougher.

Deborah Beauvais

Debbi Beauvais
spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

That’s what Debbi Beauvais, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and school nutrition director at three K-through-12 schools in Rochester, New York, says.

The registered dietitian and school nutrition specialist also notes that schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must follow USDA guidelines.

“The National School Lunch Program has changed a lot in the 14 years I’ve worked in the school system,” Beauvais says.

In 2010, The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act became law and the meal pattern was totally revamped for the start of July 2012.

Menu planning became more like assembling a puzzle. Guidelines are very specific about how many servings must be offered from various food groups.

“We also have very sophisticated customers – or students. They’ve grown up with marketing on TV, at the movies and all around them. They know what they like to eat, and it doesn’t turn into good nutrition if they don’t eat it.”

Beauvais ensures beef is included in her cycle menus, which also include pork, poultry, cheese, egg and yogurt.

“With good menu planning, we offer a wide variety of foods within each food group,” she says. “This includes 2 ounces of protein, 2 ounces of whole-grain breads or grains and 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables with a food cost of about $1.50 per meal.

It takes between $2.50 to $3 per meal to cover all expenses. Students pay just $2.55 at full price and $0.25 for reduced price, along with students who receive meals for free. I challenge anyone to pack a lunch with the same nutrition we provide for the same money.”

She and her fellow school nutrition professionals often rely on NCBA and other producer-funded organizations for ideas and support.

“We offer many Beef Checkoff-funded resources to help operators and chefs understand how beef fits on menus,” Zino says.

“Most are available at Beef Food Services and include Beef University, cutting guides, menu concepts and recipes, as well as a section specific to beef recipes for school foodservice which meet USDA school lunch guidelines.

“In addition, we developed school foodservice recipes for state beef councils to share with their local school districts. Response from school staffs and students has been positive.”

It doesn’t end with menu support, either.

Beauvais says producer-funded groups offer a wealth of information and educational materials about their products.

“They also support us when controversial topics arise – pink slime, for example,” she says. “I relied on my state beef council representative for the right information.

I’ve also participated in several industry tours, which helped me learn the industry from the ground up. The end result is that I feel very comfortable talking about the protein products I serve at school and how they’re produced.”

That’s but one more reason beef will stay on institutional menus.  end mark

Rick Purnell is a freelance writer based in California.

School lunch needed

Debbie Beauvais, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and school nutrition director at three K-through-12 schools in Rochester, New York, operates a self-supporting business within her district.

Her program is responsible for not only food and supply costs but also employee salaries and benefits.

It takes just under $1.50 in food costs to make each meal. Salaries, benefits, maintenance, equipment and related expenses push the total cost to about $3 per meal.

A full-price meal from her kitchens runs about $2.55. Reduced-price meals that include federal and New York state subsidies run $0.25. Funding from these two sources also helps cover the costs for students who receive free meals.

She manages to keep her kitchens operating within budget, despite a changing wealth demographic in the district.

“When I started here in 1999, 17 percent of our students qualified for free or reduced-price meals,” she says. “Now, nearly 50 percent qualify. It’s changed how we operate the business, but we’re still all about serving a nutritious, full meal.

“I do not think everyone understands the food insecurity issue. There’s no way to know what hunger looks like. Your neighbor’s kids could be hungry because of a parent’s job loss or countless other reasons.

At school, we really see it after a break. On Mondays, some kids may eat us out of house and home. Some even tell us they’re glad it’s a school day because they know they’ll get something to eat. More are taking advantage of summer meals, too.”

These are just a few faces to the reasoning Beauvais shares when discussing the importance of the National School Lunch Program and her team’s ability to create well-balanced meals that include all sources of protein her student customers will enjoy.

“If you haven’t been in a school cafeteria in the last 10 years, check one out,” she says. “It’s not the school meals you remember. Healthy, appealing and nutritious offerings are on the menu every day.”