Cycle Menu Planning in 7 Easy Steps

by | Feb 16, 2023

A cycle menu is a series of menus planned for a period of time–two weeks or even a month long menu can be typical. During the duration of the cycle the menu is different each day, and after completion, the menu is repeated.

Planning a cycle menu offers several unique advantages (as well as challenges) for hospitals, cafeterias, healthcare facilities, and schools. As a wholesale foods supplier, Schenck Foods understands that whether you’re an established retirement community with a long-term care facility or a new private school, your menu is crucial to providing an excellent experience for your residents. We get that nutritional requirements, state and federal guidelines, and profitability analysis are a key part of a smart menu design. And we’re here to help with our in-house menu planning services.

Why Plan a Cycle Menu?

Usually cycle menus are used in food service operations that serve the same group of customers every day–as a result the menus follow a particular pattern designed to meet the oftentimes unique customer needs. Cycle menus can:

  • Take advantage of nutrient analysis and planning
  • Reduce plate waste through relying on historical data
  • Cut purchasing time due to repeated orders
  • Easily substitute or switch certain meals once the whole cycle is planned
    • This allows special menus for birthdays, holidays, or special occasions
    • Seasonal planning can feature fresh produce, local products, or cultural flavor
  • Meet state and federal meal guidelines
  • Encourage participation and control food costs through planning popular meals, and cutting meals with high plate waste
  • Plan for effective and strategic use of leftovers

Cycle Menu Challenges

Cycle menu planning is often based around customer preferences and stay duration. For example, hospitals may have a short cycle menu of five to seven days as most patients don’t stay in the hospital much longer than week. Colleges and grade schools may have a cycle as long as four to six weeks as the same students will be dining on a daily basis over an extended period of time. Serving repeat customers a menu that is new, fresh, tasty and interesting within a time restriction can be challenging–and is one of the reasons a carefully considered menu can make or break an institution’s dining experience.

Another tedious aspect of menu planning for healthcare professionals, school dietitians, and others who are assigned to plan cycle menus is the added burden of strict food regulatory compliance.

Hospitals and nursing homes use cycle menus

Time restrictions, nutritional requirements, and food service guidelines are in addition to the usual menu considerations of balance, aesthetics, color, flavors, shapes, and size of food.

Despite these hurdles, the cycle menu still provides structure, predictability, and documentation: all crucial factors to plan, maintain and validate menus which delight customers and help meet nutritional standards and guidelines.

7 Steps To Successful Cycle Menu Planning

First it’s important to note that all of the traditional menu planning rules such as internal cost controls, pricing, waste management and seasonality apply here–but as we saw under the Cycle Menu Challenges heading above, there are some additional hurdles to cycle menu planning we have to consider. Our seven suggestions below will help you get you well on the way to creating a beautiful, cost-effective, and delicious cycle menu for your customers.

1. Decide the number of weeks your cycle menus will include.

What are norms for your industry? For example, many daycare centers have a three week menu cycle, to avoid serving the same combination of foods too often. We’re familiar with local trends and many industry guidelines–if you’re having trouble determining the ideal menu cycle length, let us help.

2. Plan your main dishes first.

The main dish is your Meat/Meat Alternate. Foods such as pasta, rice, and vegetables may also be a part of the main dish. Gather any nutritional requirements your customers need as a part of this step. Try to serve a different main dish for each day in the cycle. Balance higher-cost foods with lower-cost foods over several days or a week.

3. Add side dishes to go with the main dish.

Reference your guidelines to ensure you’re checking your meal pattern requirements. This often includes milk, fruits and vegetables, grains and bread, and meat or a meat alternative.

Nurseries and daycares can plan cycle menus to keep costs low

4. Plan your menus for breakfast (and/or snacks).

Depending on what your institution offers you may need to plan three meals, or a meal and a snack, or some variation of the above. The need for variation makes the next step particularly difficult.

5. Don’t repeat the same meals or foods too often.

If you serve chicken twice per week, make sure the recipe is different enough that the two meals don’t get confused or conflated with each other. Adding local flavor or cultural cuisine to your menu can help avoid a loss of identity. The added variety also helps meet nutritional needs, and it’s just more fun. And, as Thomas Keller said, “Food should be fun.

6. Keep your equipment, space, and staff experience front of mind.

If your kitchen can’t handle it or your staff can’t make it, it does absolutely nothing for your menu. Manage expectations–both your own, and those of your guests.

7. Be flexible enough to adapt.

As you receive feedback from your guests, customers or residents, respond to likes and dislikes. Change recipes, or throw them out altogether. Poor reception to a recipe results in plate waste, increased costs, and dissatisfied diners–life’s too short to try to make them eat their peas. Make something else.

Strategic Cycle Menu Planning with Schenck Foods

Confident chef planning a cycle menuWhether it’s a one-time partnership or a long term relationship, we’re familiar with the demands that hospitals, schools, daycares, restaurants and caterers face. That’s where Schenck Foods’ wholesale pricing, local knowledge, menu planning, and long experience come into play.

We have competitive pricing, quick order processing, friendly and efficient staff, and rapid turnaround and delivery time. What we don’t have is a mediocre selection, slow corporate hassle, or hidden fees.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to ask questions or request special ingredients.