Okay, honesty time – I dreaded my food service rotation more than any other, and I suffered restlessly through each and every one of my food service classes during undergrad. And know I wasn’t alone in this, because food service is well-known as the redheaded stepchild of dietetics (is that term offensive yet? Seems like it should be offensive…). Let’s go over just some of the many reasons I’ve heard my fellow classmates and interns say they don’t like food service over the years:
- “I didn’t go to school to chop vegetables.”
- “What does dietetics have to do with ordering a stove?”
- “Who becomes a dietitian to run a restaurant?”
- “Dietitians are health professionals, not chefs.”
- “Why would I sit through eight chemistry classes to end up getting a job where I use none of it?”
Some of the things we say about food service can be harsh, and I have a feeling it’s because those of us who have no interest in it are forced to learn it anyway. But I think another part of the problem, at least for myself, is that I was never really clear on what a food service dietitian actually did. Do they run restaurants? Do they work in a kitchen? Are they managers? Are they cooks? I sure did a lot of cooking in my food service classes in undergrad, but I also did a lot of calculations and ordering equipment and … party planning? It was all very confusing, and even going into my internship I really had no idea what I would be doing in my food service rotations.
I think it will be helpful to go through each of the myths above and then, at the end of this article, I’ll lay out what a food service dietitian in a hospital really does, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Spoiler alert – it’s not what you think!
1. “I didn’t go to school to chop vegetables.”
I know that, unfortunately, a lot of people have bad experiences during their food service rotations and end up in the kitchen doing food prep for eight to ten weeks. This usually happens when you get placed with a preceptor who has no idea what to do with you, and I’ll say this – you’re paying for this internship, and you’re not paying to chop vegetables every day. During my internship, there are days when myself and the other intern (and the dietitian!) jumped in to help because the kitchen was short staffed, but these were rare occurrences. Unless your program director tells you otherwise, this is not the point of your dietetic internship. If you’ve become simply another member of the prep line, set up a meeting with your internship coordinator or director and let them know what’s going on. You should be learning what the dietitian does every day … which isn’t chopping vegetables, by the way.
2.”What does dietetics have to do with ordering a stove?”
Okay, this one is straight from my own mouth so we’ll get through this together =D If you are passionate about clinical or community dietetics, food service just may not make sense to or interest you whatsoever. But here’s the thing. The skills you learn in your food service classes and rotations are best not looked at under a microscope – ordering a stove, the shelves have to be this high off the ground, the formula for final yield is whatever (I’ve clearly been paying attention). If you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that you’re learning how to manage, and this is something you don’t learn in your clinical or community classes. Here’s the thing … if you’re lucky enough to become successful in your clinical or community careers, someone will want to promote you to a managerial role, and then those food service classes about leadership and management styles and workflow just might come in handy.
3. “Who becomes a dietitian to run a restaurant?”
This one comes from simply not knowing what a food service dietitian does. No, most people do not become dietitians to run a restaurant – although you certainly could, and I bet some do. I could be kind of cool! But most food service dietitians work in hospitals, long term care facilities, and with food companies, although that’s getting more into the food science arena (some people lump schools and food banks in with food service too, but those are usually put in the “community” category). Although it may sound like you’re learning to run your own restaurant in class, that’s really not the goal. The goal is, usually, to oversee a kitchen in a hospital and make sure it runs safely and efficiently.
4. “Dietitians are health professionals, not chefs.”
Yep, I get it. As someone who wants to be a clinical dietitian and have my own practice, I get it. But we have to remember that dietetics is a massively diverse field, and that actually, some dietitians ARE CHEFS! Remember culinary nutrition? That’s a thing! But really, food service dietitians don’t typically cook, and they definitely aren’t chefs. They’re managers.
5. “Why would I sit through eight chemistry classes to end up getting a job where I use none of it?”
Again, I get it … but let me tell you why those chemistry classes matter to a food service dietitian, and this one is big. The reason people want us running a kitchen in, say, a hospital, is because we can answer questions about the renal diet a patient is on and whether they can have a certain food. We can help come up with menus for a cardiac diet that patients will actually eat. We can train employees and make sure they are able to catch mistakes before they reach the patient’s room. We know the different levels of the dysphagia diet. Does someone who has a B.S. in Hospitality know any of that? Hell no!
So what does a food service dietitian actually do?
During my food service rotation at a small 19 bed hospital, I watched my wonder woman preceptor do just about everything. Here are some of the things she did and why they matter:
- Manage the kitchen staff: you have to be a boss and deal with conflict. A lot. This includes hiring, firing, discipline, all that sticky stuff, but it also includes fun stuff like celebrating birthdays and building relationships. If you’re good at all this, god bless you. You have found your niche.
- Create the schedule: … which is eerily similar to playing sudoku, only people will be mad at you when you’re done because you had to make them work a Saturday even though they requested off.
- Plan special events: yes, party planning. This probably depends on where you work, but I saw the circus that was planning the holiday party at the hospital where I did my rotation … wow. Just wow. It’s so much work, but if you enjoy event planning, this could be really fun for you!
- Pitch in: be willing to get messy. Just like any other managerial role, if you’re short staffed, you may be on the line serving, in the back chopping veggies, or in the dish room washing up. It doesn’t happen all the time but it’s part of the job, at least at a smaller hospital. The good news is that your employees will respect you a lot more if you’re willing to do to the dirty work when it’s necessary without complaining.
- Keep things safe: Remember The Joint Commission? Did you just break out into a sweat reading that name? A lot of your job as a food service dietitian is making sure your kitchen is safe and up to the standards of TJC, because they can pop in at any time to check in on you. Checking expiration dates, making sure people are washing their hands, and coming up with standards and protocols for your kitchen are crucial and effect the entire hospital you work for. No pressure right?
- Math: … kind of. Remember all those calculations we had to do in undergrad, percent yield, FTE’s, blah blah blah? Well, there’s an app for that. Surprised? Regardless, a lot of a food service dietitian’s job is filling out spreadsheets, looking over numbers, and doing paperwork.
- Creating and maintaining menus: whether they’re patients, families of patients, or employees, people have to eat! You’ll likely work with the chef on the menus to make sure the food is palatable, cost efficient, and works for the patient population.
- Maintaining the kitchen: something is always broken or needing to be replaced in a kitchen. It’s typically the food service dietitian’s job to look into how to fix or replace what’s broken, so yes, you will be ordering that stove =D
- Creating materials for the staff: depending on what’s needed, you might be making training manuals, safety materials, patient menus, data logs, and other materials for the staff to use that will make their job easier and safer. If you like use Canva or other similar software, this is where you can get creative!
- Stay on budget: you’ll likely have to answer to someone higher up than you on a quarterly or maybe even monthly basis and let them know why you’re over budget, or hopefully celebrate the fact that you’re under budget! In between those meetings you’ll look at food prices and figure out how to efficiently plan your menus and use up inventory you already have so you don’t waste money.
- … And so much more: I could go on forever, but I hope you get the point – food service dietitians do it all!
If I had to some it up, a food service dietitian is a manager who has the superpower of science. She or he keeps a kitchen safe and, through doing that, keeps patients safe. That, in turn, allows the clinical dietitians to do their jobs, because if patients are sick from a food-born illness, or receive the wrong texture of food, or become malnourished because the food arrives to their room cold everyday and they can’t eat it, then all the nutrition education in the world won’t help. See, food service dietetics is pretty important!