How to Eliminate Dietary Complaints… for Under a Buck!

I originally got started in longterm care through the Dietary Department.  I had previous restaurant experience, so that was a plus on my resume when I applied for a position at a local V.A. nursing home.

I was hired as the Foodservice Supervisor and within a short period of time became the Dietary Manager.  One of the first problems I faced was the poor staff morale, poor quality of food produced, and multiple dietary complaints on food and customer service.

Since this was a Veterans facility, many of the residents’ families had no problem picking up the telephone and calling their state representative and senator to voice complaints.  Let me tell you, while many calls to a congressman’s office may go unanswered, these did not.  I remember my administrator telling me as soon as I started how he wanted things to settle down so he didn’t have to deal with the representatives anymore.  So, I had my work cut out for me.

Obviously, being a consistent manager, enforcing basic management priciples, teaching staff, holding people accountable, and treating people with respect went a long way in eliminating many of the Dietary problems.  However, we needed something extra.  We needed some form of incentive.  I came up with a very simple system.  The system itself costs under a buck.

I put up a piece of white poster board (around fifty cents at the time).  On it, I documented every validated complaint my department received.  Now, each time I received a complaint I would investigate it, interview other residents, etc. to see if this was isolated to one chronic complainer or if more than one person had the same issue.  Each validated complaint went on the board.  for example:

Complaint 1: Thursday’s lunch was bad.  The chicken wasn’t cooked thoroughly, baked potatoes were hard, we ran out of macaroni, and jello was served instead of the ice cream on the menu.

Complaint 2: Went to ask Dietary on Friday afternoon for a peanut butter sandwich per the resident’s request and the Dietary Staff member was rude and made a hassle out of making the sandwich!

You get the idea.  Anyway, this went onto the poster  for my staff to see each day for the current month.  Each month got a new poster.  At the point I initiated this program, the Dietary Department was receiving at least 1 complaint a day, so  around 30 plus a month.  I challenged my staff to get less than 15 complaints on the board for the next month.  If they did, we have a drawing for a prize.  If they didn’t we’d have to keep that poster up along with the new month’s.

Now, I believe positive reinforcement is a great motivator.  However, I don’t see anything wrong with letting a team know what the perception is about their performance.  If I’m the cook who prepared lunch on Thursday, I may not agree with the complaint that was received, but I guarantee that I will most likely pay a little more attention to the meals I put out if I’m aware of what’s being said about them.  The same with customer service.  After a little inservice on the complaints received and some goal-setting, my team was much more aware of how to treat people who came to the kitchen asking for something.

Amazingly, we got less than 15 complaints the next month.  We had a prize drawing and everyone’s morale seemed to improve.  The prize itself wasn’t important.  I usually spent $20-25 on the prize each month.  I had the administrator sign off for this money to come from the meal tickets I sold to employees and visitors.  At the beginning, I wasn’t selling very many meal tickets.  After a couple of months, it was obvious the food quality and service had improved and my ticket sales began to increase.  I began to make around $1,000 extra each month just in ticket sales.

Each month, I raised the bar on the number of complaints we could have – 15 the first month;  12 the second month; 9 after that, etc.  Soon, I had to modify my system.  i could no longer track Dietary complaints because we weren’t getting any.  I had to start tracking compliments received, asking for at least 10 the first month and raising the bar after that.

After a few short months, my Dietary Department was recognized by our company as the model for their other nursing homes Dietary Departments.  I even had to go and do some training at other locations.

Now, there are a few other factors that went into revamping this department, so i don’t want you to think these aren’t important.

  • I began a FIP  – a Food Improvement Program where I actually spent time each week with my head cook working alongside and assisting in meal preparation to ensure menus were followed, etc.
  • Some of my cooks began to ask for higher grade food products than what we were receiving, i.e.- catfish fillets.  We did upgrade several products.
  • Menus were revamped.  The cold entrees, breakfast for supper, and too many mixed veggies were all removed.

As you can see, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to improve food quality and stop the slew of complaints coming in.  It just takes putting focus on the problem.

Thanks for reading and I hope this gives you some ideas!

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2 Responses to “How to Eliminate Dietary Complaints… for Under a Buck!”

  • Michele on

    So, I am a diet tech in a Nursing home. We just implemented a online meal system that keeps our residents likes and dislikes, selects meals, you get the idea. Well, we give a menu on Sunday, input selections on Monday, thus missing all day Sundays meals and Monday breakfast. Residents are mad, my staff doesn’t get timely production sheets, my boss makes me and the cdm enter the meals. How does your facility work? Any advice greatly appreciated…..
    Love your ideas, I will pass along to my boss.

  • Mark on

    I would probably give a menu on Friday as well. That way you catch the weekend through Monday breakfast. You can’t have the residents staying mad as that will result in deficiencies in multiple areas. You know the saying. “Once they get on a roll…” it doesn’t stop. I would try on Fridays as a start. Or you could select some of the favorite courses and make those a standard for say Monday breakfast. Like some facilities have “Catfish Friday” for lunch, you could standardize a couple of the meals to cut down on them not being able to make the selection.


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