Aged Care Menu Design
Since the first episode of Master Chef was aired, the expectations of meals & dining experience have changed everywhere and aged cares are no exception to this. Hundreds of recipes are available online with step by step instructions and / or video to pretty much produce any dish from around the globe. Many celebrity chefs have identified the need to educate / train aged care staff on adopting a completely different approach towards aged care meals. Having said that, the legal requirements, dietary requirements and catering services as a whole have changed drastically in aged care in last decade.
Producing fancy meals in restaurants & cafes is completely different exercise then producing the same in aged care environment where logistics, meal service structure, diet guidelines, budget constraints, limited supplies, texture modifications and associated paperwork plays a major role.
In my previous article, we talked about DOs and DON’Ts to create a dining experience in aged care. In this article, I would like to share my thoughts on Aged Care menu planning & execution.
Typically, aged care menu (Lunch & Dinner) consists of meat & three vege with addition of soup at dinner. All Aged care menus are created & implemented strictly to meet dietitians’ recommendations and approval. The challenge here is how to design the menu that meets dietary requirements and still provide the masterchef standard meals & services to our residents. Another factor that plays a major role in deciding aged care menu is family and / or relatives’ expectations. Many residents’ family members prefer to choose meals & drinks for their loved ones and like to see certain dishes served on the menu. Thus, as mentioned, serving a dish in restaurant is completely different exercise then serving the same dish in aged care.
I believe that first and foremost, we need to identify the clientele. It is important to identify the likes and dislikes of residents that we serve. Most of the aged cares already have this system in place when residents move to their homes. However, the likes and dislikes information collected at the admission is not the same as meal preference. At the time of admission, we mostly gather the ingredients or individual items preference for each resident (e.g. likes custard & ice cream, dislikes peas etc). A detailed & regular survey about all residents’ meal preference is essential. Larger organisations (multiple aged care facilities) often try and implement same menu across all their facilities in order to develop standard recipes, streamline the ordering & provide consistency. In theory, it seems like a perfect solution to overcome lots of admin issues but it beats the main purpose of achieving residents’ satisfaction. A perfect example would be a pasta bake dish. Pasta bake features pretty much in every aged care menu on regular basis. As a chef, I have experienced myself that certain facilities really sold all residents on pasta bake dish and some facilities were only selling salads & sandwiches or some other alternative on the same day. So even though we have same recipes, consistency & high-quality ingredients, we are not achieving residents’ satisfaction. I believe that, yes, menu needs to meet dietitians’ requirements and should have certain amount of carbs, dairy, protein etc. but it also needs to meet residents’ (80% of the clientele) preferences.
Very essential, yet usually ignored aspect in aged care. Cooking a great meal is only the first step towards providing great experience for residents. Meal presentation is another criteria that needs to be addressed. As mentioned above, due to TV shows such as masterchef and MKR, people have expectations of meal presentations and menu choices. Let’s not forget that we are catering to the generation where Meat and three vege cooked well and presented simply yet professionally was the highlight of great dining experience. Even if we manage to provide the exactly same meal but present it in a bit different way and make it look attractive, majority of the residents will be happy with meal services. There is no point in trying to buy expensive ingredients which can be FOREIGN to residents and their taste buds are not used to those flavours. Roast potato, Roast Pumpkin, Roast Lamb with gravy and mint jelly & Buttered Beans have enough colour, texture & flavour to create a great dish, if cooked and presented well. Please remember, that great looking, meat and three vege from TV shows, require lots of equipment, cooking time, labour and expensive ingredients and none of these are available at the moment in aged cares.
Constructive Criticism and Personal Preferences
Constructive feedback and personal preferences need to be identified & separated clearly in order to design menu in aged care. I have realised that few vocal residents play a major role in changing the menu design. Often at residents / relatives meeting, food is on top of the list for discussion. When it comes to food, everyone has an opinion. As an organisation, it is important to listen to feedback from our clients but it is also necessary to make sure that, even unintentionally, we do not let few people decide what should be on menu choice. I have noticed, that majority of times if we really listen to some of the criticism from residents and relatives, its more of their own personal choice rather than an issue with the meal itself. These personal preferences need to be addressed separate (within reasonable limits). I often say that if 80% – 85% of your residents are happy with meals and services, you are doing a great job as an organisation.
Theme Days & Special Occasions
Once a month, a special lunch should be served to celebrate food from various countries. It will really enhance residents dining experience and also creates an opportunity for chef to showcase the creativity. A theme day calendar needs to be provided to catering and lifestyle so that there is enough time for preparation. A success of theme day does not depend on food only. We need to create an environment (appropriate dress ups, decorations, advance notice to residents and family etc). Lifestyle needs to ensure appropriate decorations are available for theme days and even care staff can contribute by dressing up for the occasion. It is imperative to have some sort of build-up leading to the theme day. Staff needs to remind residents a week in advance about the upcoming theme day and also make a point of having discussions about the country that’s being celebrated. This will really provide a platform for a successful theme day.
It may seem like not such a big deal but it is. How we word the dishes on menu is very important. Dishes on the menu need to be described in a way that residents can easily relate to. Delicious, well presented meal is more important than fancy name on the menu. There is no harm in calling “casserole” a “casserole”. I am not suggesting to misguide the residents, I am only suggesting to use the language that residents can easily understand and can easily identify the dish.
Many organisations end up with lots of ice creams, custards, creams, 4 types of vegetables at lunch, some sort of side salad always on menu and much more just to meet the numbers given by dietitians. There is no need to offer each item separate on the menu and list them separately as well. There is a need to develop recipes that incorporates dietitians’ minimum requirements. E.G. more vegetables can be easily offered to residents in terms of soups, casseroles, braising liquids etc. More dairy can be achieved by garnishing morning teas and cakes and desserts.
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