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Why is institutional food horrible?


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I went to college in the '70s into the early '80's and the meal plan was awful. So bad that a court ruled students could drop off the plan and cook in the dorms notwithstanding the prospect and ultimately the reality of vermin.

 

Now my son is in another college but ended up with the same caterer, which is one of the megaliths of the industry. And the food is still horrible and not healthy.

 

I get it that lots of people don't have the money or energy or time to make gourmet meals at home, but that's a choice. If you are at college or in the military service or some other group setting, you have no choice but to eat whatever comes in giant cans or frozen bags or unmarked cartons of mystery food.

 

Are we as a society allowing too much time to be spent at star restaurants where building food statuettes out of rare and expensive ingredients absorbs the mind power of chefs who could be figuring out how to feed captured audiences a little better and more cheaply? We have hospitality schools everywhere. Cooking networks. Hamburger universities. The CIA. Should we not figure out a way to get them on the job?

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39 minutes ago, Rodk said:

Are we as a society allowing too much time to be spent at star restaurants where building food statuettes out of rare and expensive ingredients absorbs the mind power of chefs

I don't know where you are dining but in my experience, restaurants featuring food sculptures are expensive industrial food outlets:  cruise lines, large resort hotels and the like. 

 

42 minutes ago, Rodk said:

Now my son is in another college but ended up with the same caterer, which is one of the megaliths of the industry. And the food is still horrible and not healthy.

I can't speak specifically to the horrible part but plenty of people select unhealthy options even when given the choice.  I worked for years at a company that used Marriott to run the cost-subsidized staff cafeterias.  On-site managing chefs were CIA or similarly trained. Healthy options abounded but the long lines were for burgers, fries and the like.  The vendor made most of their money from catering meals and snacks for meetings.  Again, plenty of healthy options on their menu but people wanted their cookies and lemon bars.  You can lead a horse to the salad bar but....he'll always double up on the Ranch! 

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Not my general experience. My mother in law was the head dietician at a large hospital and my husband dragged me to visit 2 of the retired cooks cuz he wanted me to get their recipes for a few of his favorites when he worked at the hospital as a teen. They were adorable and spent hours with me. When I had a few projects at UCLA I looked forward to certain of the preps in the cafeteria. Their collard greens were so good.  When my son was in high school they did away with cooking on site. Did surveys of local providers that were in budget (pubic school)  - the top choice was a tiny local sandwich shop that made beautiful sandwiches. They were minutes away and delivered them freshly made in time for lunch at a reasonable cost.  Elementary school was a different story back in the day with some antiquated government regs on what was "healthy
. Channeling his buddies we went the bento box route from home. In college (UCLA) my sister and her sorority sisters went to the House for decent meals where they were able to give lots of feedback. Oh and there was the whole "create your own extravaganza at the salad bar" in college. I still fondly remember the Linzer cookies at USC. The other food must have been decent as the Persian engineering students who were kinda picky about food never complained. 

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1 hour ago, Rodk said:

I went to college in the '70s into the early '80's and the meal plan was awful.

I can understand why if it was prepared by megaliths. 
 

 

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Back in the 80's the Thousand Oaks, CA hospital had clam chowder every Friday that was world class.  It got to be "a thing"

to meet for lunch at the hospital.  Loved seeing all "the suits" lined up.  A very different type of a soup line.  I was never a 

patient there so can't comment on the rest of the menu but I suspect it was pretty decent.

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Had our third child in Montreal at the Jewish General.  The food was outstanding.  That's where I first fell in love with cheese bagels.  Yum. We could buy them in Montreal. 

 

Then we found a Jewish delicatessen in Ottawa which made them.   Then we moved to the culinary wasteland of East Central Ontario and I've never seen one since.   That was 50 years ago.  By heck, we are getting old.

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I think the norm for food in the US is pretty low. When I see what gets brought to pot lucks its pretty clear that home cuisine is pretty crappy. Institutional cooks have a low bar

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Many years ago, I was briefly hospitalised in London and was recovering in a public ward. The food was awful (but thanks to the good old NHS, free).

 

In the next bed was this man in his late 30s/early 40s (I guess).  One day he said to me that he thought the food was wonderful. I assumed he was being sarcastic, but it became clear that he really meant it.

 

I asked him what he usually ate at home. He replied that every day he had fish 'n chips from the local chip shop. Except Sundays, when he had chicken 'n chips instead. Again, I thought he must be joking, but no.

I got the impression he was one of these lonely single men whose mother always cooked for him until she passed away and he had no clue how to survive. I don't know why he was in hospital, but I could guess.

 

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6 hours ago, Darienne said:

Had our third child in Montreal at the Jewish General.  The food was outstanding.  That's where I first fell in love with cheese bagels.  Yum. We could buy them in Montreal. 

 

 

Had my only at Cedars Sinai (Beverly Hill adjacent location  - yes Hard Rock Cafe across street) . The new parents could opt for  champagne and lobster I think dinner. No - just get me home! Don't remember eating a thing but sure it was nice- beautiful hospital. 

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My sister works in an elementary school cafeteria in ND.

She doesn't need the job, but she loves the kids.

The kitchen crew works very hard to perform magic with what they're given — the kids generally like the food.

 

 

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Most institutional food is the product of restricted budgets. The ingredients are bought in bulk, as cheaply as possible. The cooks are underpaid and under-skilled. Hospital food is additionally crippled by dietary rules as well, such as very low salt and very low fat. The use of canned foods is prevalent. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, like a bigger budget or a few dedicated souls out there who have some tricks in their bag, but you get what you pay for generally.

 

And American standards are pretty low. When this subject is raised someone always brings up the French defense; how the school lunches are so wonderful. My husband remembers this from his one year in France in middle school. I wonder if it is like that now, or if it was simply better by comparison.

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6 hours ago, liuzhou said:


I got the impression he was one of these lonely men whose mother always cooked for him until she passed away and he had no clue how to survive. I don't know why he was in hospital, but I could guess.

 

 

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12 minutes ago, weinoo said:

 

Food poisoning?

 

Unlikely. Malnutrition.

I asked him about vegetabes or fruit. He informed me that chips were vegetables and that he had had a banana three years previously.

 

I'd like to say this is a joke. Again, it isn't.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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1 hour ago, Katie Meadow said:

Most institutional food is the product of restricted budgets. The ingredients are bought in bulk, as cheaply as possible. The cooks are underpaid and under-skilled. Hospital food is additionally crippled by dietary rules as well, such as very low salt and very low fat. The use of canned foods is prevalent. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, like a bigger budget or a few dedicated souls out there who have some tricks in their bag, but you get what you pay for generally.

 

And American standards are pretty low. When this subject is raised someone always brings up the French defense; how the school lunches are so wonderful. My husband remembers this from his one year in France in middle school. I wonder if it is like that now, or if it was simply better by comparison.

 

I recall a Bourdain episode where he ate at an elementary school in France and marveled at the quality.  So its true within the past 5 or 10 years

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I served in half-a-dozen US Navy ships.  the quality of the food varied rather a lot - and the ingredients all came from the same supplier(s), and they all had the same budget $ per person.

some chefs are more talented than others....

 

places that have long service hours - schools, etc - have a challenge keeping food 'instantly' available for hours.

I've noticed that places which do a 'better job' tend to make stuff in multiple, smaller batches - a small batch is served, and a fresh batch arrives.

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But then institutions seem to have the same story....    Ed taught at a local high school for a few decades and for the first decade or so, the ladies who ran the lunch room were local and not part of any large company.  The food was pretty darned good.

 

Then somehow either to save money or from a directive from on high...which also would have been to save money...or placate some company which was in some or all the other high schools, the ladies were dismissed and a large company moved in.  Good-bye decent food.  Hello lowest common denominator bilge.

 

@heidih; As for food in the hospitals when our children were born.  I might have added that our eldest turns 60 in October and our baby turns 55 this week.  Having a baby in hospital meant a two-week stay back then. 

Darienne

 

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I remember visiting my mother in hospital and meeting my new (only sister). That was 1963. My mother was lying in bed with a bottle of Guinness!  Even then, still really a kid, but I thought otherwise, I was shocked that she was drinking alcohol! She was normally totally teetotal. Back then it was considered medically advantageous and available on the NHS for free.

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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I do think it's a budgetary issue. I recall schools, and hospitals, where the food was pretty good. That's way back in my dim recollection. More recently, hospital cafeteria food has been, well, to be kind, low quality and bland, and school cafeteria food the same. But I have tremendously fond memories of school lunchroom chili and cinnamon rolls (why were cinnamon rolls ALWAYS the dessert paired with chili? But it was a "thing.").

 

I had "Grandparents Day" lunch with my grandson at school last year. Canned corn, dumped into the steam table, heated slightly, sloshed on the plate. Spaghetti with meat sauce. A meager salad, no dressing. (Teachers and adult guests could get packets of dressing; nothing for the kids.) Dessert, a brownie, was decent, which is to say, edible. No wonder my grandson, who will eat exactly six things, takes his lunch from home.

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3 hours ago, liuzhou said:

 

But the real question is "how do you open them?"

First I put the banana on a plate. Then I cut it neatly in half with a knife. Then I peel each half and throw away the peels so I don't have to look at them. They're unsightly, don't you think? And what if I dropped one and then slipped on it and cracked my head on the tile floor? Then I would have to post something in the "I'll Never do That Again" thread and there's no competing with @JoNorvelleWalkerso what's the point? But I digress.

 

So now I have two perfect peeled halves of banana on a plate. And that's how I open them.

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59 minutes ago, IowaDee said:

Now stick a skewer in each half, roll them both in  melted chocolate and than in crushed nuts.  Freeze and enjoy.  By far the best way to eat a banana.😄 

 

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