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Restaurant Family Meal Ideas to Feed Your Staff Pre-Shift

Justin GuinnAuthor

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As a restaurant operator, chef, or kitchen manager, one of your top priorities is to ensure that your staff is well-fed and energized before their shift begins. 

This is where the concept of a "family meal" comes into play. Family meals are a tradition in the restaurant industry, where the entire staff gathers together to share a meal before their shift starts. It can help boost morale and drive down employee turnover rates — as well as ensure that everyone is properly nourished and ready to provide the best service possible. 

In this article, you will learn what a family meal is and why it’s crucial for staff morale as well as see some creative and delicious family meal ideas to feed your staff pre-shift.

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What is a restaurant family meal?

A restaurant family meal is a longstanding tradition in the restaurant industry where the staff of a restaurant gathers before a shift to share a meal. Also known as a "staff meal" or “family dinner”, it serves as a way for the team to come together, build camaraderie, and fuel up before a busy shift.

Family meals can be simple or elaborate, and they can range from a potluck-style gathering to a chef-prepared meal. They often include dishes that utilize surplus ingredients or test kitchen recipes.

The concept of the family meal has grown in recent years as a way to create a positive work environment and to ensure that restaurant staff is well-nourished and energized before serving customers.

Why do restaurants feed their staff before a busy weeknight shift?

In the fast-paced restaurant industry, it's important that staff members are alert, focused, and energized throughout their shifts. 

Restaurants feed their staff before a shift to ensure that they have the energy and mental clarity to provide excellent customer service while maintaining a positive attitude.

Additionally, restaurants often have irregular and long hours, meaning that employees may not have the opportunity to eat a proper meal at home before coming into work. Providing a family meal ensures that employees have access to a nutritious meal before the busy shift begins.

Feeding staff before a shift also encourages teamwork and fosters a positive work environment. By sharing a meal together, staff members are given time to build relationships outside of work tasks and to create a sense of camaraderie, which can improve communication and collaboration during their shift. 

It's a practice that not only benefits the team but ultimately benefits the restaurant and its customers as well.

Staff dinner ideas should balance costs, creativity, and easy clean up

There are a few considerations to keep in mind when coming up with restaurant family meal ideas.

  • Most important is the cost. As much as you love your staff, you don’t want to balloon your overall food costs because some caviar or foie gras keep getting added to family meals. Just as with your restaurant plate cost exercises, family meal costs should be kept to a minimum. This can be achieved by repurposing existing items or even sneaking in some ingredients that may be approaching the end of their shelf life (read: not already spoiled!)

  • Creativity can abound with family meals. Though it’s a great option to rotate in on occasion, a restaurant staff cannot live on pasta alone! Family meal dinner recipes can be a great way for staff to share some creativity and take risks on repurposing or presenting ingredients in different ways. This could lead to abject failure, a stroke of genius that makes it to the menu, or simply a bit of culinary lighting that inspires but doesn’t last. Restaurant family meals can be a great way for line cooks and other staff that don’t typically get to be creative to flex some creativity.

  • Cleaning up after family meal should be easy. Let’s be honest, no one wants to bury the dish crew in dirty plates and pans before the shift even starts. That’s why it’s essential that restaurant family meal ideas don’t require too many dishes. For example, a soup, salad, and sandwich could require two bowls and a plate per employee. That’s too much. Same goes for pots and pans. Bonus points to any one-pan wonders for restaurant family meals.

With these three considerations in mind, here are some restaurant family meal ideas that can be easily customized, iterated, and repeated for your staff each week.

1. Build-your-own taco, fajitas, or nachos bar

A build-your-own taco, fajitas, or nacho bar is a versatile and crowd-pleasing option for a Mexican-themed family meal.

Lay out a variety of protein options such as pulled chicken, grilled steak, ground beef, and sautéed vegetables. Provide an array of toppings like salsa, guacamole, jalapeños, sour cream, shredded cheese, and chopped onions.

Don't forget to offer a selection of tortillas or nacho chips, including both flour and corn, to accommodate different dietary preferences.

This customizable meal allows your staff to create a taco that suits their taste buds while fostering a fun and interactive dining experience — and doing it on sizzling fajita platters (or steaming sheet pans) will just make it so much better.

2. Pasta station

Who doesn't love a comforting plate of pasta? Set up a pasta station with different types of pasta, such as spaghetti, penne, and fettuccine, along with a variety of tomato sauce, Alfredo, pesto, or simply olive oil.

Include protein options like crispy fried chicken cutlets, sautéed shrimp, meatballs, and Italian sausage. Add a selection of lemony, Italian-seasoned veggies and herbs for an extra burst of flavor — and don’t forget the parmesan cheese!

A massive pan of lasagna can also play well here. Not only is this an affordable option, but it also allows your staff to personalize their pasta dish according to their preferences.

3. Asian stir-fry

For a healthy and quick family meal, consider an Asian stir-fry that can rival any takeout options.

Provide a selection of fresh veggies like bell peppers, broccoli, snap peas, and carrots. Offer protein options such as tofu, shrimp, and sliced chicken thighs or chicken breasts.

Set up a stir-fry station with different sauces like soy sauce, teriyaki, and sriracha. Make sure to provide a variety of rice options such as jasmine, brown, and sticky rice.

Encourage your staff to create their own flavorful stir-fry dish by mixing different ingredients and sauces.

4. Pizza party

Who can resist a classic pizza party?

Order pizza dough from a local bakery or make it in-house if possible. Offer a variety of sauces like marinara, barbecue, and pesto. Include toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, and olives.

Don't forget to offer a selection of cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar, and feta. Encourage your staff to get creative and design their own pizzas.

Consider having a friendly competition to see who can come up with the most unique and delicious pizza creation — looking at you cheeseburger pizza with special sauce.

5. Breakfast spread

Sometimes, a hearty breakfast is just what your staff needs to start their day off right.

Offer a breakfast spread with options like scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns. Include a variety of bread and bagels along with spreads like butter, cream cheese, and jam. Provide fruits and yogurt for a healthy touch.

This family meal idea is perfect for early morning shifts or for restaurants that offer breakfast service. It's a great way to provide a wholesome and energizing meal to fuel your staff for the day ahead.

6. Salad bar

For a lighter and healthier option, consider setting up a salad bar.

Offer a variety of fresh greens like lettuce, spinach, and arugula. Include an assortment of toppings such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and avocado.

Provide a selection of proteins like pulled rotisserie chicken, boiled eggs, and chickpeas. Offer a variety of dressings ranging from classic vinaigrettes to creamy options like ranch and Caesar.

A salad bar not only ensures that your staff gets their daily dose of vegetables but also allows them to customize their salads according to their preferences.

7. Comfort food classics

Sometimes, nothing beats the comforting taste of classic dishes.

Consider serving dishes like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, smothered pork chops, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.

These nostalgic comfort foods will not only put a smile on your staff's faces but also provide them with the warmth and satisfaction they need before a busy shift. Plus, these hearty meals can be prepared in large quantities and are usually budget-friendly.

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Restaurant family meal as a driver for employee retention

Remember, the family meal is an opportunity for your staff to come together, bond, and refuel before a demanding shift. 

While it's essential to provide delicious food options at a low cost, you want staff walking away feeling valued as well as full and nourished. Likewise, it can be equally important to consider any dietary restrictions or allergies your staff may have. 

Operators can take the time to ask your team for meal suggestions or create a rotating schedule where each staff member can take turns deciding on the menu. 

By prioritizing your staff's well-being and creating an inclusive dining experience, you'll create a positive work environment that encourages teamwork and productivity — and may even help boost employee retention. 

Given the ongoing restaurant industry labor challenges, anything operators can do to boost employee retention is essential. Providing consistent restaurant family meals could be a relatively low-cost mechanism to encourage greater retention.

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