Tina Burns

Senior Foodservice Product Consultant, Direct Supply

As a foodservice product consultant, one of the most common questions I get asked is how to keep food hot during the process of delivering meals. This makes sense because the biggest foodservice complaints in Senior Living dining are bad food and cold food. I can’t help with bad food, but I can give you tips to help you make sure your residents are getting hot food! Due to the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and health and safety recommendations, effective in-room dining is more important than ever. Here, I’ll offer an overview of important factors in delivering hot and appetizing meals to residents and solutions that will help you succeed.

Keep Food Warm and Maintain Food Safety

Consider Travel Distance and Time the Process

The first thing to consider is how far the food is traveling. The clock starts ticking the moment the first meal is plated and doesn’t stop until the last plate is delivered. Most people underestimate how long it takes for food to reach residents, failing to take into account that the caregiver delivering food may stop to talk with a co-worker or provide assistance to a resident.

To get a sense of your current delivery times, start timing when the first meal is plated and then put that same timer on the last tray that will be delivered. Let your staff know that over the course of a week, you will be timing the tray delivery process to help ensure your residents are getting hot food. Be sure to reassure them that the point of this exercise is to assess the process so you can properly gauge which system is needed for your unique situation.

Insulate Food and Ensure You Implement a System for Your Delivery Times 

The first step in delivering hot food is to start with a hot plate. This is important because if you put hot food on a cold plate, food immediately starts to lose temperature. A wide variety of plate warmers are available to help with this step.

In general, if it takes 30 minutes or less to deliver food, a plate warmer and insulated base and dome should ensure the food is warm when it arrives. Options like Marquis insulated ware work well.

If longer than 30 minutes is required, many communities use a traditional wax pellet system, which has holding times anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on product brand. These systems use a plate heater, a pellet heater, a base lifter, an underliner and an insulated dome.

For those looking for new technology, consider induction systems, which provide a smaller footprint and increased safety because the sides of the bases are cool to the touch. Induction systems come in several different varieties:

  • There are two induction options that will hold food for up to 60 minutes
    • One option can heat up to 20 bases at a time with the bases being ready in about 12 seconds
    • Another option heats the bases one at a time in 35-second increments
  • For those needing a longer hold time, there is an option that offers a holding time of up to 90 minutes; the three-phase version of this unit has a base cycle time of 15 seconds, although lower voltages may take longer

For these different systems, you can use the same dome but the base used for just a hot plate is different from the base that would be used for the induction systems. It is also important to note that the induction bases are not interchangeable.

I’m often asked if there is something more attractive than the basic insulated base and dome. There are plastic and stainless steel domes that are geared toward one-off hospitality-style room service delivery, not multiple tray delivery. These options are not insulated and have a vent hole in the top, so they do not retain heat. But they are available in many different styles and colors to best fit your décor.

So, you have your hot food covered. Now how do you get it to the resident?

Selecting and Utilizing Meal Carts for Safe and Efficient Tray Delivery Service

Stainless Steel Meal Carts

Stainless steel carts will not stain, absorb odors or discolor, and the tray slides can be removed for easy cleaning. Stainless steel is the most sanitary material when cleaned and cared for properly, and vented sides help eliminate odor buildup and heat transfer among the food on the cart. However, these carts are susceptible to dents and scratches and can be heavy and difficult to move.

Aluminum Meal Carts 

Aluminum carts are an economical alternative to stainless steel. Their lightweight design makes them easier to maneuver, and they share stainless steel’s resistance to stains, odors and discoloring. In addition, the tray slides can be removed for easy cleaning.  But like stainless steel, aluminum is susceptible to dents and scratches.

Poly Meal Carts

Poly carts are more lightweight than aluminum and stainless steel and will not rust, dent or crack. Thus, they move quietly through a community but do not offer the ability to remove the tray slides for cleaning.

There are also poly and steel combination carts that offer the best of both worlds: heavy-duty capabilities in a lightweight, easy-to-clean design. This style of cart may not fit the look a community is trying to achieve, however.

Insulated Meal Carts

I often get asked about insulated meal delivery carts. While carts used to transport bulk food are insulated, tray delivery carts are (with a few exceptions) generally not insulated. This is because trays typically contain both hot and cold food. If the cart is insulated, the cold food would be adversely affected. In fact, the majority of meal delivery carts are actually vented so that the hot air inside the cart can dissipate. What keeps the hot food hot is the atmosphere created with the hot plate, base and dome. Earlier I mentioned exceptions to the rule concerning insulated tray carts. Examples of these include the Meals on Command II and accessories. 

Cold Food Carts

We talked a lot about the importance of keeping food hot, but what about those items that you want to keep cold, such as milk cartons, pudding dessert cups or even salads? We offer a wide array of hydration and nutrition carts. For communities looking to use carts they may already have in-house, gel-filled pans go in the freezer overnight and will hold food at or below ServSafe guidelines for anywhere from four to eight hours, depending on the product and the ambient temperature of the service area. These include Coldmaster and Coldfest pans.

Direct Supply carries thousands of foodservice products to complement your Senior Living dining meal delivery program. Shop online or contact your account manager at 800-634-7328 for more details or to order.