Have we got the Basics right in Aged care Catering?
A new era of aged care has begun and “Catering” is one of the key areas of focus. The majority of aged care providers are working continuously towards providing best possible “catering services” to their residents. More choices for each meal service, personalised menus, modern twist on traditional dishes, flexible meal service times, breakfast buffet, optional in room service, fancy dining room designs, elegant table set up… the list goes on.
Having said that, in the end it all comes down to what’s been served on a plate (Presentation & Taste) and how it’s been served (Service). If the food isn’t cooked and served right, everything else around it just doesn’t make sense. We must remember that a nicely cooked meal and friendly service from a food truck on a street can also fall into category for a great dinner out. Somehow, from my experience I have seen that focus is moving away from the basic of “Good Food – Served Well”. Aged care catering emphasis so much on the luxuries of dining experience and introducing new ways / means of service that I almost don’t see the management noticing the ground level concerns.
In my opinion, it all starts with one biggest question. Have you employed a chef or an admin person / manager in the kitchen? I see chefs focusing so much on the paperwork (I am not including food safety records in this category), struggling to keep up tight budgets, reporting finances, attending meetings & conducting too many training sessions too often. In some facilities, I never see a chef near the stove or oven. This must be resolved with priority if any provider needs to achieve a decent standard in catering.
Not too long ago, there were no multiple choices for meals, no fancy dining rooms, no modern twists on dishes and yet residents were looking forward to the meal times. Residents were happy with the traditional Sunday roast with veggies and gravy or a simple sandwich. Yes, there were some issues back then as well but the important thing to notice was that even without the luxuries of choices, residents were able to enjoy the meal. Why is that? Why even with all this money and time spent on the dining experience, we are still struggling to make most residents happy. Why don’t the chefs have time to go meet the residents for even 5 mins chat to see how they actually enjoyed the meal? What are we doing wrong? Despite so many choices available on menu, so may dietitians make sure that menu provides sufficient nutrition to residents, supplements and sustagens are big part of aged care.
Well, I guess the answer is simple. Get the chefs behind the stove and provide them with training and resources that are required to COOK and SERVE the meal. If a traditional Sunday Roast or Fish Friday is cooked well and served with love, we don’t need fancy cutleries and white linen. We don’t need 5 different choices on the menu for each service. We don’t need to focus on the cost for supplements because residents will actually EAT the food and enjoy it.
The second basic that needs to be looked at is SERVICE. This is where the rest of the catering staff and care staff comes in. I am yet to visit a place where a proper “Dining Room Service” training is provided to staff. I am not talking about a one-off “Tool Box Meeting” session or “Masterclass” on dining experience. I am talking about hands-on training for kitchen assistants. Kitchen staff need to be trained on what the priority is when it comes to “Meal Service”. Most of the times the staff are so rushed leading to the meal times and after that they don’t even have time to greet the residents when they come to dining room. During the service, the staff seem more focused on preparing trays that the care staff ask for, trying to serve 5 different meal options and at the same time focus on dislikes and individual preferences. On average catering staff serving minimum 30 residents, clearing the dining room, washing dishes & getting ready for next service. I am not suggesting that there is a need to increase catering staff in dining rooms but there is definitely a need to review the workflow and work practices in dining room at the service time.
Mostly all aged care do a survey on catering with residents and families. How about doing a survey with the actual catering staff regarding catering? How about allowing them to have a say in how the service can be improved or what needs to be done to address their concerns. One may argue that this is why they organise meetings on regular basis but everyone may not be comfortable putting their suggestions forward in front of so many other people or the limited time may not allow them to actually focus on individual suggestions / concerns. I have witnessed that many staff members are aware of the issues and do know a way out but lack an opportunity to take it to the higher management or don’t feel like they are able to speak up or be heard. I have also witnessed that sometimes staff are just not aware of the real meaning of “Dining Room Service”.
To conclude, I strongly believe that any system’s success or failure is decided right at the base. If the basics are not taken care of, everything else that is built on top will fail. It is also not only a one-off exercise to check that basics are taken care of at the beginning, this has to be an ongoing exercise with maximum resources allocated to the base and keeping the focus at the grass root level.