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Seven tips for successful wellness programming

The foodservice team has become an integral partner in providing local wellness programs. Here are tips for success by operators for operators.  

Do you remember when foodservice meant just that—serving food? That all changed about 15 years ago when an new era rushed in to help customers identify healthier options in our dining rooms. The role of the foodservice operator has been evolving and expanding ever since.

The foodservice team has now become an integral partner in wellness programming. And the trend is shifting to niche programming where foodservice teams collaborate with onsite clients to provide targeted efforts to local communities.

If you see local wellness programming in your future, here are tips for success from fellow operators who have already done it.  

Tip #1: Bring all stakeholders to the table
Susan Cooper, MS, RDN, CDN, director of nutrition and wellness for Flik Independent School Dining based in Rye Brook, N.Y., stresses the importance of collaborating with all stakeholders to get it right. She and other members of the management team at Flik Independent School Dining (FISD) worked closely with the onsite foodservice team and school administrators to implement a pilot wellness program at the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.

School administrators approached FISD to create a program that would demonstrate healthful eating practices and portion control for students while also helping to prevent food waste. They created the Pace Yourself program, which offers students pre-portioned plated meals created and served by the onsite foodservice team. The onsite registered dietitian provides classroom education throughout the year to augment and reinforce program messages.

“Being so far away and a difficult school to visit, we had to work closely with all involved, as well as ensure that the client was on board with all of the outreach,” Cooper says. “In addition, this was a change in the way lunch was handled so there were logistics that administrators had to we aware of, such as flow of crowds in the servery and the timing of meal periods.”

Joan Cope, MPH, RD, LD, Morrison Healthcare retail wellness dietitian, food and nutrition services at Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System in South Carolina, agrees with the importance of a multifaceted approach.     

Her colleague, Kerri Lindberg, RD, LD, community and wellness dietitian for the Joe R. Utley Heart Resource Center of Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, created the concept of Cooking Up Wellness, a program designed uniquely for a local, rural community center serving people ages 55 to 85. Lindberg and her colleagues at the Center collaborated with the Morrison Healthcare foodservice team serving the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.

Cooking Up Wellness is a three-pronged program to educate community members about various health issues and their potential risks, and includes health screenings, cooking demonstrations and nutrition discussions.  

Cope believes having diverse input from various healthcare personnel such as nurses, dietitians and chefs is what contributed to the success of this wellness program. 

Tip #2: Know your audience and communicate accordingly
Flik’s Cooper highlights the importance of developing messaging targeted to your audience. Having a multifaceted team with complementary skill sets is what allowed the group to get its messaging right. She credits the team members in Hawaii as being essential to their communications efforts.

“We needed to understand more about Hawaii and Kamehameha culture,” Cooper says. “Using certain common objects to denote portion size is a common nutrition education tool. We put a hockey puck into one of our digital messages [about portion size], but we had to be reminded that hockey isn’t really relevant in Hawaii.”

The Dietitian’s Dish program at North Carolina State University.

Lisa Eberhart, RD, LDN, CDE, director of nutrition and wellness for NC State Dining at North Carolina State University (NCSU), works with nutrition students to better communicate with their peers in the dining room. In fact, it was the idea of a dietetic intern that initiated the Dietitian’s Dish program at NCSU.

“I had a dietetic intern that thought it would be nice to have an ‘approved’ dish daily,” Eberhart says. “Many students ask me and my staff what we choose [to eat] when we are in the dining halls. She had the idea of creating an avatar of the dietitian and calling it the dietitian’s dish.”

The foodservice team ran with the idea. Using nutrition criteria put forth by the Partnership for a Healthier America Healthier Campus Initiative, they now display one dish at every meal to appeal to students to try a healthier option with proper portioning.

To get buy-in from students, Eberhart recommends using peer-to-peer contact.  

“Younger people want to talk to their peers, get advice from their peers, get recommendations from their peers,” Eberhart says. “The undergrads help us get the word out. They have friends that eat in the dining facilities and they can post on social media. The peer to peer really helps with acceptability.”

Tip #3: Think outside the box
That’s what Allison Smith, MPH, RD, registered dietitian for Campus Dining Services at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and her team did.  

They developed #CUCrave - Swipe Right for More Flavor, a poster and social media posting program to entice students to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious foods. The “swipe right” concept is meant to simulate common dating applications where you say yes or approve a match—in this case, a healthy food. Each food has a brief “profile” of nutrition information, fun facts and suggestions for use.

Marketing for the #CUCrave - Swipe Right for More Flavor program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“Don’t be afraid to push the limits and think outside the box,” Smith says. “This concept wasn’t initially accepted because it mimicked the online dating idea, but it’s been really well received by the students because it is relatable.”  

To generate creative ideas, NCSU’s Eberhart encourages operators to look at what restaurants are doing and how and where your customers spend their time. Students on campus spend a lot of time on social media so they take pictures of their daily Dietitian’s Dish and post it on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Tips 4-7

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Tip #4: Include point-of-service staff training
Even great ideas will fall flat if you don’t include point-of-service staff in your planning efforts. They are your frontline—the people interacting with your customers face-to-face every day.  

Flik’s Cooper and her colleagues understood that without training point-of-service associates, the Pace Yourself program could not have been successful. They took meal portioning training a step further and educated associates about how to talk to students to encourage them to be mindful about their food choices and portions.

A poster for the Pace Yourself program by Flik Independent School Dining for the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.

Tip #5: Start small
In Eberhart’s words, “start with what you can do well.”

Launching a new program with a variety of moving parts is enticing, but that doesn’t mean you have all the resources at your disposal to implement each part from the get-go. And it may just be too much for your customers to digest all at once. There’s nothing wrong with starting small and adding on to the program gradually as you garner feedback, evaluate and get a handle on what can be managed.

Tip #6: Promote, promote, promote
Targeted messaging includes not just the words and analogies we use, but also the mediums in which we share them.  

To create buzz for any wellness program and maximize buy-in and success, promote it far in advance utilizing all relevant vehicles of communication to reach all pertinent parties. 

Onsite signage and marketing materials are a given these days, but how else and whom else can you reach out to to promote the program?

K-12 school programs can be more impactful when faculty and parents are made aware of and can reinforce the program at home and in health and physical education classes. At colleges, ask students what the most widely used social media platforms are and communicate through all of them. Program-specific handles and hashtags are a great way to spread the word, track communication with customers, as well as respond to their questions and gather feedback. For community events, prepare announcements that can be shared on local cable channels and newspapers and on their websites and social media pages.  

Tip #7: Evaluate and repeat
Evaluation is the least likely piece to be included in a wellness program, but it is one of the most important if you want a program with longevity.

“The evaluation process is invaluable for receiving feedback on what is working well and planning for the future,” Cope says. “Use attendee feedback for further planning, even if it changes the structure of the program. They really do notice and will continue to attend.”

Post-presentation surveys of the Cooking Up Wellness program unveiled that the reason for a drop in attendance in the second year was not due to a bad program, but because reduced funding didn’t allow for attendees from another town to get there by bus. Documenting the results of the program legitimized its success, thereby justifying replicating it in another town in South Carolina. 

Through evaluation, Cooper and her team learned that students and faculty did seem more satisfied with less food, menu quality was perceived as improved and post-production food waste decreased by an average of 25.5 percent.

And last but certainly not least, rely on social media to evaluate and improve your programming. It does require time, but the engagement will result in loyal customers and you will get invaluable feedback…for free.

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