The Shift in Dining Trends in Assisted Living Facilities

You don’t need to be a culinary expert to notice the world of dining has been rapidly changing over the past few years. People are drinking green juices, monitoring things like trans fats, and learning how to pronounce words like ‘quinoa.’ Indeed, Americans are manipulating their diets in new ways, and the impact can be felt in restaurants and grocery aisles across the country.

Dining programs at assisted living communities are not immune to these larger cultural trends. The long-term care industry has long followed the lead of the hospitality business. Many communities aim to replicate the experience of eating-out or staying at a resort– this strategy can be a very helpful way to ease a new resident’s transition. Residents want to enjoy the comforts of home, or be reminded of their favorite restaurants.

In June of 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, unveiled MyPlate, a new ‘food icon’ meant to replace the Food Guide Pyramid. According to the USDA, the goal of MyPlate is to “prompt consumers to think about building a healthy plate at meal times” by “emphasiz[ing] the fruit, vegetable, grains, protein foods, and dairy groups.” MyPlate really excels in showing the proper proportions for a healthy diet–grains and vegetables each take up a larger percentage of the plate than protein foods. This program is designed to encourage balance within each meal, and this new nutritional value system has helped introduce new foods, textures, and flavors to the American palette.

This recalibration of mealtime priorities has had huge implications on senior living. Food service programs have long been a point of emphasis for both established and fledgling assisted living facilities. The reason for this is simple–resident satisfaction surveys clearly outline a correlation between favorable dining programs and overall resident contentment. Recent studies, including those done by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, have shown that “meals and activities are the daily focus of residents”, and that “food services, food/meals, and the mealtime/dining experience consistently influence resident satisfaction with facilities and quality of life.” Meals have a normalizing effect in long-term care. Beyond simple bodily sustenance, the dining room is a meeting place, a daily comfort, a place where communities are formed and strengthened.

In the past, dining programs have been structured and informed by limitations and restrictions. Meal plans were devised with an eye on efficiency, and the food itself was kept intentionally basic. Most AL communities primarily used buffet-style meals to cut costs on staff and labor. Now, we’re seeing more table service, which not only replicates the restaurant experience, but makes dining more convenient for residents with limited mobility and promotes a true dining experience (as opposed to a cafeteria format).

Another huge shift has been in cuisine itself. Previously, the cooking in communities was often done by unskilled workers and a result, recipes were simplified and relied heavily on processed or prepackaged foods. With today’s ever-growing focus on health, community directors are reinvesting in their food programs and leaving largely processed food behind in favor of natural, healthier ingredients. This why many communities capture all food allergies and dietary concerns as comprehensively as possible. The best way to do this is to implement an assisted living software like ALIS that can provide reports in these areas. When this type of information is easily retrieved, there’s no risk and all reward for the residents.

Assisted living residents are already seeing the health benefits of this culinary shift. MyPlate and similar nutritional rubrics stress the importance of leafy, green vegetables and unprocessed whole grains. These foods are rich in mineral content and fiber–things especially important for seniors, many of whom are dealing with diabetes, histories of heart complications, and high blood pressure. Current food trends showcase different forms of protein, particularly beneficial for the frail or non-ambulatory. It may be easier for the elderly to fight osteoporosis with beans, nuts, chickpeas, and lentils rather than exclusively consuming animal protein. There is now better understanding of lean protein sources and low-fat dairy products. Many facilities are also introducing foods rich in antioxidants–blueberries, red grapes, kale, and sweet potatoes–that carry the added benefit of Vitamins A & C, calcium, and omega-3s.

This may all sound scientific, but the translation to the plate is simple–new menus, fresh textures, and bold flavors. Assisted living residents value taste and menu variety, and their homes are approaching mealtimes with thoughtfulness and creativity.