Cooks, Institution and Cafeteria
Schools and Education
|Recommended Degree Level||Certificate or Higher|
|Number of Jobs, 2012||395,280|
|Annual Job Growth Rate||3.2%|
|Job Openings per Year (est.)||13,620|
- Institutional cafeteria cooks have no set educational requirements -- you may get on-the-job training.
- You might attend culinary school to obtain a certificate or associate's degree to help with employability for larger employers.
- Graduation from an accredited food service program can help those who want to move to supervisory positions or play roles in designing menus, no states currently require it.
What you study:
- Food safety
- Stocks and sauces
- Pastry preparation
- Culinary math
Describes briefly what cafeteria and institutional cooks do. Produced for the US Dept. of Labor.
A Day in the Life
Whether you prepare lunch for students, correctional facility inmates or hospital patients, your mornings start early. Depending on your role in the kitchen, where you're located and the menu you've planned, you may be up at dawn. Although some cafeterias take delivery of pre-made rolls that only need a final browning in the oven, yours might not have that option. Rural schools, prison facilities and offshore oil rigs serve hundreds, but they don't have the storage space for pre-baked breads. If you're in charge of baking duties, you'll be the first one at work.
When you get to the kitchen, everything is spotless. Gleaming stainless steel counters and organized walk-in refrigerators aren't just for show in an institutional kitchen, especially those that serve young children or hospital patients who may be more vulnerable to food-borne illness. With so many people eating the same food from the same kitchen, food safety is paramount. You wash your hands often throughout the day and change gloves frequently. In a large kitchen, you might be assigned to stations to ensure better food safety.
If your school or hospital serves breakfast, you'll start preparing it as soon as you have the dough for the rolls ready to rise. With many hungry people to serve, you don't have time to crack hundreds of eggs, so you head to the walk-in and hoist a bag of shelled raw eggs for scrambling. It won't be the last heavy lifting you'll do during the day; as an institutional cafeteria cook, you regularly carry large cans and boxes. The heavily laden steam-table pans and sheet trays that hold the food can weigh a lot, too, so your knees, arms and back get a work-out just moving food to the service line.
The breakfast menu is designed for speed. Many elements are made the day before to keep the food coming to the line quickly. To go with the scrambled eggs, you serve pancakes from the batter you prepared yesterday, rounding out the meal with fruit cups you'd filled two days ago. The fruit seems to be a big hit, and you make a note to fill more cups today after lunch service. If you work in a hospital, your breakfast service might take longer. You must prepare separate meals for patients on low-sodium, low-fat or low-sugar diets.
After breakfast is cooked and served, you start lunch preparation. Today is baked spaghetti with meat sauce, so you have a fairly easy day ahead of you. You boil the pasta al dente so that it doesn't overcook when you bake it and add a little extra oregano and basil to the pre-made sauce. Baked summer squash is on the menu too, so you chop the squash and portion the slices in pans, drizzling them with olive oil and sprinkling with salt and pepper. If you work in a hospital, you leave one pan unsalted and add herbs to accommodate patients who can't have excess sodium.
Your day doesn't end after lunch service. Prep for future menus often begins a day or two before, so you'll start chopping, pureeing and stewing as soon as lunches have been served. For cafeterias that serve three meals a day, the latter half of your work day may include preparing foods for the next shift. On a day with an easy lunch service, you're out by early afternoon. Busy days may keep you a little later, but you're rarely in the kitchen past 3:00 if you work a breakfast and lunch service.
Certifications and Licensing
Certification in food safety or nutrition can be an asset for institutional cafeteria cooks, but it is not required. For those who want to join the field above an entry-level position, though, certification can help. Cooks who take an active role in designing menus or overseeing school lunch programs should seek certification through the ACF.
Full-time versus part-time:
Cafeteria workers typically work full-time, but some schools that offer only lunch have part-time positions available. As with any kitchen job, cafeteria work does not usually permit much flexibility with hours. Food takes time to prepare, and there are no short cuts. However, most cooks work with others who will switch shifts or cover for another cook in an emergency.
Almost all institutional cafeteria workers work on premises. The specialized nature of kitchen work does not lend itself to off-site work or outsourcing.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Cooks – This site gives prospective cooks and chefs a broad overview of the profession. Because it provides information for cooks at every level of expertise and in every kind of professional kitchen, it's a useful resource for visitors who want a brief summation of multiple food service options.
- American Culinary Federation – As the largest professional organization for chefs and cooks in the nation, the ACF provides ongoing education and certification procedures for cooks in every line of kitchen work. The Partnerships tab has more information on other organizations and programs designed to help school and hospital cafeteria cooks create flavorful, healthful menu options.
- School Nutrition Association – School cafeteria workers will find a wealth of resources for finding the latest government regulations on food services, managing a school lunch program and teaching kids about nutrition. The Career tab gives insight into ongoing educational opportunities and professional development for school food service employees. The site is also an excellent source for news about legislative action that could affect school programs.