Among the skills of a menu planner are the ability to identify food products and their availability on the market; knowledge of how foods are prepared, served and consumed, as well as which foods are complementary to one another; and an understanding of recipe yields and conversions. When a menu planner devises menus for an institution, he must pay attention to the specific needs of the institution's patrons and the budgetary and other limitations imposed by the institution.
Tailor the menu according to the type of institution you are working with. Institutional clients might be grade schools or high schools, colleges or universities, hospitals, nursing homes or correctional facilities. Each of these institutions will have its own dietary requirements, but in general, institutional menus focus on nutritional balance.
Follow the dietary regulations of the institution in question. Hospitals will require the menu planner to adhere to the regulations set by the staff registered dietitian. Menus used in hospitals include a house diet, or regular diet, a liquid diet, cardiac diet, diabetic diet and soft mechanical diet. Failure to plan these meals appropriately could have detrimental consequences.
Keep within budget. Institutional food services often hire large food service companies to run their food operations. They might designate a per diem budget, but the menu planner has some latitude to design menus because the budget extends over an accounting period. The aim in institutional menu planning is to break even or achieve 1 or 2 percent profit; profit is not the main focus of the operation.
Adapt to the ages and food preferences of the patrons. Depending on the type of institution you are working with, you will be dealing with different food tastes and preferences. Young children at an elementary school will favor certain foods over others, but working with one age group can simplify the work of a menu planner. Hospital patients may be of any age, so the menu planner must take into account many preferences and ages. College students may be the most challenging of all, because they will expect a certain level of quality for the amount of tuition they are paying. Food surveys can help the meal planner get a better sense of what patrons at the institutions want to eat.
Work with the food service system available. Many institutions work within a cafeteria-style food service, or a scatter system, where people can skip stations and move quickly. Hospitals will cook the food in a kitchen and take it to the patient in heated or refrigerated carts. Planning a menu should work within the constraints of these systems, particularly in terms of serving foods at their proper temperature to avoid food-borne illness. Additionally, menu planners may design menus in cycles, of one to two weeks for hospitals and four to five weeks for schools, so as to minimize diner boredom by not repeating menu items.
Plan around several other key factors. Other factors will influence how a menu planner shapes a menu, including hours of operation, storage facilities, equipment requirements, government stipulations and religious restrictions. In the case of elementary schools, menus must follow the school lunch provisions set by the USDA. The armed forces also have their own set of dietary guidelines that affiliated institutions must follow in order to receive funding.