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 nursing home food hot during the process of delivering meals. This makes sense because the biggest foodservice complaints in Senior Living dining are bad nursing home food and cold meals upon delivery. I can’t help with bad food, but I can give you tips to help you make sure your residents are getting hot food! Effective in-room dining can be enhanced through a Senior Living dining program with the right food service equipment. Here, I’ll offer an overview of important factors in delivering hot and appetizing meals to residents and solutions that will help you succeed.

Keeping Nursing Home Food Warm and Maintaining Food Safety

Tip: 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.

Tip: 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 heaters are available to help with this step.

In general, if it takes 30 minutes or less to deliver food, a heated plate, insulated base, and dome should ensure the food is warm when it arrives. Options like Marquis insulated ware work well, or find other meal delivery systems that fit your unique needs.

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 the product brand. These systems use a plate heater, a pellet heater, a base lifter, an underliner, and an insulated dome. there are also chilled pellets that can be used to keep cold food cold.

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 after the inital heat time of 4.5-5 minutes
    • Another option heats the bases one at a time in 16-20 seconds
  • For those needing a longer hold time, there is an option that offers a holding time of up to 90 minutes; this unit has a charging cycle of 10-15 seconds depending on the base used
For these different systems, you can use the same dome but the base used for just a hot plate or pellet 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 between brands.

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

Tip: Take into account your unique needs and select the meal cart that matches them

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 Delivery Cart

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. The majority of meal delivery carts are 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 include heated carts and heated and refrigerated carts.

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 while you’re building meal delivery trays? Air curtain refrigerators are designed so the door can stay open anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes (depending on the brand) so milk cartons, pudding, dessert cups, and salads are easily accessible while assembling room trays. 

Incorporating Disposable and Reusable Takeout Containers

Tip: Save time and help reduce the risk of cross-contamination with the use of disposable containers

Disposable Dome Lid for Nursing Home Food

Disposable Containers

Single-use foodservice packaging provides a sanitary way to serve fresh food. It can also play a key part in promoting safety, reducing foodborne illness, and saving staff valuable time during the cleanup process. For those looking for sustainable options, there are containers made of sugarcane & bamboo available.


GET Reusable Eco-Takeout Container for Nursing Home Food

Reusable Containers

For an environmentally friendly option, G.E.T. Eco-Takeout solutions offer reusability and quality in a reliable to-go container.



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.