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How to Plan the Perfect Menu: A Guide for Food Service and Clinical Dietitians

Food. It is something that every person needs. It may differ how much we need, what type we like, or how often we eat, but all people consume food and beverages in some capacity in order to sustain life. Because everyone eats every day, in a professional setting, there must be a standard of food production. This all simply starts with a menu. Creating a menu requires a multi-faceted approach. Although location, population needs, and budget determine the type of menu, the type of menu also determines factors of its own, including equipment necessary for production, personnel needed for front of house and back of house, ingredients to be bought, storage space and so on.

Who, What, Where and Why and How?

Who? - As a Registered Dietitian, the nutritional needs of the given population are essential to know. Not only should dietitians create a plate that is visually appealing (for example, creating a plate of chicken, cauliflower and brown rice looks very bland, whereas a plate with blackened salmon, asparagus topped with pesto and a side of a 7-grain blend looks much better) but a plate that is aesthetically pleasing for all senses. A plate should have a mixture of textures, such as grilled pork, roasted Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes; having a plate of entirely mushy foods or all crispy textures would not be as interesting of a mouthfeel. Furthermore, the population’s health needs should be at the heart of the menu. In a diabetes center, the serving of carbohydrates in each meal needs to be controlled. At a burn clinic, there must be an adequate amount of protein and energy served in order to promote healing. At an eating disorder rehabilitation facility, portions should be standardized.

What? - Aside from population of clientele that will be served, the physical facility itself is important in determining what type of menu can or should be created. In centralized meal service, food is prepared and served in the same location. If a facility is a decentralized production center, food is prepared in a main, or centralized, kitchen in large quantities and is either transported to satellite buildings or is time delayed through a cook-chill process. The satellite buildings then provide finishing touches or rethermalization to the food prior to service, and also supplement the meals with food items from a pantry or a quick service made-to-order grill (6). The type of menu is also determined from who will be eating from it. Cycle menus, which are usually planned in multiple week increments and then repeated, are typically used in setting such as retirement communities or school cafeterias. Fixed, or static, menus feature the same menu items every day, such as at a restaurant or for hospital room service, where clientele can choose the food items that they desire to have at time of order (8). Fixed and cycle menus can also be categorized as selective and non-selective menus (2).

Where? - There are other human factors that must be considered when building a menu. The United States is a melting pot of diverse backgrounds. In what region of the country is the facility? If in Pennsylvania, consider having a cheesesteak on the menu; if in Texas, utilize “Tex Mex” dishes and flavors. Verbage should also stem from location to ensure the population is comfortable with the menu and correctly understands what is on it. While “pastry” means a flaky dessert in most places, in southern states it may mean a savory dish such as chicken pot pie. If in a facility with a large Jewish community, consider making a special kosher menu. Age even plays a part in deciding what foods to include on a menu; many older Americans enjoy cottage cheese, but if the population to be served is younger, perhaps don’t offer this as a staple part of the menu because it is not a popular dish and will also not be profitable. Age also plays a part in timing meals—sometimes, older people need to be reminded to eat and having set mealtimes will help with this. An aging population tends to eat earlier, so ensuring food is prepared and ready for the projected busy times is important as well.

Why? - When building a menu, a key factor that must be considered is the mission and goals of the organization where the menu will be used. Will the menu be used in a stroke rehabilitation clinic, where the food must be low-sodium and low-fat, or will the menu be for a retirement community, where residents prefer a buffet-style setup with many options? Will meal service be centralized or decentralized? Will clientele order patients from the menu, or will there be a set amount of food offered daily at each meal? Diving into these questions will help form the direction for the Food Service Manager, Registered Dietitian, Certified Dietary Manager, and kitchen personnel to decide what type of menu to create for their specific location and goals.

How? – To make a menu the most successful it can be, in order to drive sales or acceptance, is to make the menu itself as visually appealing or as eye-grabbing as possible. Be intentional with colors and font that are used, as well as using vivid item descriptions. Play with sectioning the menus out specifically to showcase special items or bestsellers. In certain locations, including nutrition facts or symbols (i.e. a heart next to cardiac-friendly choices) will be advantageous (3)(4). Menu layout, while seemingly not important, is essential and should not be a last-minute part of the planning process.

Distribution of Food From Menus

Once a menu is created, the distribution of food from different menus is coordinated depending on population type and the distance between the kitchen and the clientele. In a healthcare setting, there are usually several options available for how food is ordered and distributed to patients or visitors. Trayline is a common meal assembly process in acute care, senior living communities, school cafeterias and correctional facilities. Using this style of food service, trays are moved through an assembly line and employees serve a portioned amount each item onto the tray (2). The trays are prepared in the kitchen and then transported on carts and delivered to patients in a setting such as a hospital, or in locations where clientele are more ambulatory, they will move through the trayline themselves (7). Cycle menus or static menus are often used in settings with trayline. Other forms of food disbribution include room service, table-side in-dining service, buffet, restaurant style, and convenience store (2).

While there are factors out of a company’s control, such as the amount of time people may have to eat, or the size of the kitchen, there are factors that a company can control that will help them reach their goals. For example, signage: in a recent Stanford study, using seductive names such as "sizzlin' beans", "dynamite beets" and "twisted citrus-glazed carrots" in place of their basic foods names of “beans,” “beets” and “carrots” increased students’ vegetable intake by 25% (9). Presentation of food is very important as well. If a patient in a hospital is on a pureed diet, placing blended green peas into a food mold so that the green peas are formed into the shape of circular peas, a patient may be more inclined to eat them. Training staff to have high quality customer service will always only improve the experience of the clientele, and is something that should also be of utmost importance (1).

Measuring Menu Acceptance

One of the most essential steps in creating a menu is to see how it is accepted and to make changes to it in order to best satisfy clientele while remaining in budget and staying within company or government regulations. There are multiple ways to measure client satisfaction of food (1)(3):

  • Plate waste studies

  • Surveys

  • Popularity index

  • Average sales checks

  • Benchmarking

  • Forecasting through percent yield and contribution margins

Menus are critical in the everyday function of food service production. Planning the “who, what, where, why and how” will help outline the creation of menus in any professional venture.

RD Nutrition Consultants LLC, is the industry leader in Clinical Dietitian Services Nationwide. We specialize in providing contract Registered Dietitian services in a wide variety of healthcare and wellness organizations.


  1. Menu Planning. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  2. Meal Service and Menu Style. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  3. Committee, T. B. (2015, September 04). Basic Kitchen and Food Service Management. Retrieved from

  4. Bringing Your Menu to Life. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  5. Owens, D. (n.d.). Menu Development: What You Need to Consider. Retrieved from

  6. Managing Foodservice Operations. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  7. id=WD5hzN5uvD4C&pg=PA168&lpg=PA168&dq=centralized vs decentralized food service&source=bl&ots=vrVkS1Codq&sig=VnoEb_sxeOvSajDigsXNyx2s6ek&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjF54qb4ZDeAhWBhOAKHUAPAlU4ChDoATAEegQIABAB#v=onepage&q=centralized vs decentralized food service&f=false

  8. Olney, E. (2003, August 1). Design and analysis of meal assembly and delivery methods in hospital foodservice systems. Retrieved from

  9. Inman, J. (2014). Inman's Review of Dietetics [Audio Recording].

  10. Roberts, M. (2017, June 13). 'Seductive names' make vegetables more appealing. Retrieved from


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