High school students interested in dietetics should try to find a part-time, summer, or even volunteer job in the food-service department of a hospital or other health care organization. This kind of position allows you to observe the work of the dietary department and to ask questions of people involved in the field. A job in nonhospital food service, even a restaurant kitchen, could also be of value. With the help of teachers or counselors, you may arrange to meet with a dietitian or dietetic technician for an information interview.
Dietetic technicians work in a variety of health- and food-related settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, public health agencies, weight management clinics, correctional facilities, and food companies. They serve in two basic areas: as service personnel in food-service administration and as assistants in clinical nutrition, which is the nutritional care of individuals. Some dietetic technicians are involved in both kinds of activities, while others concentrate on one area. Specific duties and responsibilities vary widely, depending on where technicians work and their specialty.
In food-service administration, dietetic technicians often supervise other food-service employees and oversee the food production operation on a day-to-day basis. They may act as administrative assistants to dietitians, helping implement cost-control measures, developing job specifications and job descriptions, and monitoring food quality and service provided. They may also plan menus.
In a medical center, where the food service staff prepares thousands of meals daily for patients and personnel, there may be a team of dietetic technicians, as well as dietetic aides, assistants, and other food-service workers, all working under the direction of dietitians. In such cases, each dietetic technician may specialize in just one or two activities. On the other hand, in a small organization such as some nursing, Head Start, or geriatric care programs, a sole dietetic technician may be responsible for the overall management of the food-service staff and also for some nutrition counseling. The technician in a small facility may be supervised only by a consultant dietitian and may report directly to the administrator or director of the institution.
Dietetic technicians working in food-service administration plan and prepare schedules and activities, perhaps spending a substantial part of their time on the phone or doing paperwork. They set up the work and time schedules for other employees, and they train new staff members in food-production methods and the use of kitchen equipment. Later, they follow up by helping to prepare evaluations of the food program and assessments of the efficiency of employees or particular production processes.
Dietetic technicians also help to develop recipes, adapting standard versions to the particular needs and circumstances of their institution. They write modified diet plans for patients, and they sometimes help patients select their menus. They keep track of food items on hand, process routine orders to the suppliers, order miscellaneous supplies as needed, and supervise food storage. They are involved with departmental budget-control measures and may participate in dietary department conferences.
At other times, dietetic technicians work more directly in the kitchen, overseeing and coordinating actual food-production activities, including the preparation of special therapeutic food items. They may even participate in the preparation of meals, although they usually just monitor the preparations. They supervise dietetic aides, who distribute food in the cafeteria and serve meals to patients in their rooms. Depending on their employers, some dietetic technicians are also responsible for meeting standards in sanitation, housekeeping, safety in equipment operation, and security procedures.
Dietetic technicians who specialize in nutrition care and counseling work under the direction of a clinical or community dietitian. They often work in a health care facility, where they observe and interview patients about their eating habits and food preferences. Dietetic technicians then report diet histories to the dietitians, along with the patients' progress reports. The information is used to outline any changes needed in basic diet plans and menus. They also supervise the serving of food to ensure that meals are nutritionally adequate and in conformance with the physicians' prescriptions.
Technicians teach the basic principles of sound nutrition, food selection and preparation, and healthy eating habits to patients and their families so that after leaving the health care facility the patients may continue to benefit. Later, the technicians contact those patients to see how well they are staying on the modified diets and to help them make any further adjustments in accordance with their preferences, habits at home, and the physicians' prescriptions.
Those specializing in nutrition care work in community programs rather than inside a hospital or other inpatient health care facility. If employed by a public health department, clinic, youth center, visiting nurse association, home health agency, or similar organization, dietetic technicians have many of the same counseling duties as they would in an inpatient institutional setting. They may work with low-income families, teaching the economics of food purchasing, preparation, and nutrition. Or they may help the elderly, parents of small children, or other special groups who develop characteristic dietary questions and problems.
Dietetic technicians make follow-up home visits to check on their clients' menu plans, food buying, and cooking skills. In some cases, they help establish permanent arrangements for continuing nutrition care for the needy, such as hot meals for the housebound or school lunch programs.
Another aspect of the job for those working in a community program is the development and coordination of a community education effort. To do this, technicians help prepare brochures and teaching materials or plan classes in nutrition-related topics. In some cases, they even teach classes. Technicians also contact and work with other community groups to promote interest in nutrition.
Some dietetic technicians work in other settings, such as schools, colleges, industrial food-service establishments, and other organizations where large quantities of food are regularly prepared. These positions require technicians to use many of the same administrative skills but do not emphasize meeting special dietary needs of individuals or the educational and counseling aspect of nutritional-care work. Other dietetic technicians are employed in research kitchens, working under the supervision of a dietitian, to perform support activities. As part of their duties they check inventory and order stocks of ingredients, inspect equipment to be sure it is functioning properly, weigh and package food items, check for inaccuracies in precise procedures, and maintain records.