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Bon Appétit: Senior Living Dining Trends

Julyne Derrick
By Julyne DerrickNovember 19, 2018

Bon appétit in senior living? Seniors today are looking for all-inclusive communities that offer around-the-clock, chef-prepared food. Gone are the carpeted, stodgy senior living dining rooms of the past and in their place are full-service restaurants with farm-to-table fare, youthful servers with iPads in hand and a wine list that goes well beyond the house red and white.

Learn more about the dining experience in senior living today and read about the five biggest senior living dining trends in communities across North America.

Bon Appétit in Senior Living

“One of my missions when I started here was to make sure that the food served in the senior living setting far surpassed anything that people perceived it would be,” says Ronda Watson, Senior Vice President of Culinary at Atria, which has 225 senior living communities throughout Canada and the U.S.

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At Atria’s newly-opened Crestavilla in Laguna Niguel, California, residents can choose between Crystal Cove, a full-service restaurant with an open courtyard, kitchen and sunroom, or the more casual Trestles Bistro (wood-fired Margherita pizza, anyone?).

Happy hour can be spent enjoying cocktails and tapas poolside or on a rooftop deck at the Top of the World Lounge. Dinner options are plenty and include the elegant Emerald Bay restaurant. On the menu there, diners will find grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa, as well as grilled sweet Thai pork ribs with cilantro rice and steamed broccolini.

Top 5 Senior Living Dining Trends

If it sounds like an all-inclusive resort, it’s because that’s the sort of high-end feel many senior living communities are aiming for.

People, they know, don’t want to spend their last decades in an “old folks’ home” complete with low-sodium meals served on hospital trays.

What do they expect instead? Read on for the five top senior living dining trends in communities today:

Trend #1: Dining as an experience.

Seniors today don’t want to just dine out, they want to be entertained as well.

One of the biggest trends in senior living communities are open-concept kitchens that allow diners to watch chefs in action as they cook meats on a rotisserie and craft James Beard Award-worthy entrees. Diners can opt to sit at a bar to watch the action or they can reserve a table inside the kitchen and dine just feet away from a working chef.

These exhibition-style kitchens are “a little peek into the window of what happens behind the swinging kitchen doors,” says Watson.

Leisure Care, a senior living provider which operates 47 communities within the U.S., offers chef talks and cooking demonstrations at many of their communities. Some Atria communities also host “chef showdowns” between celebrity chefs brought in to compete against the community’s chefs. Judges include local politicians and radio personalities. A few Atria communities have started “adventurous eating clubs” where, says Watson, “the chef will bring in sweetbreads or some random vegetable that no one’s heard of and they’ll cook with it. The chef educates them on what the product was and how it was cooked. They have a blast.”

“We believe people belong together and we want to create that that feeling of being connected,” Watson says.

Trend #2: Farm-to-table cuisine.

The clientele moving into senior living communities these days tend to be better educated, better traveled and choosier than previous generations when it comes to their dining expectations.

“People’s education level in terms of what they’re used to is rising. The food that we put out has to measure up,” says Watson.

Seniors today expect high-quality proteins and seasonally fresh starches and veggies, says Mikel Rogers, Director of Food and Beverage at Leisure Care. “They want to know where it’s from and how it got to their plate.”

To meet expectations, more and more senior living communities are cooking with locally sourced foods.

Atria, for example, partners with local farms to provide fresh figs, pears, plums and strawberries in the summer. Maplewood Senior Living Communities in Connecticut provides its communities with seasonal produce grown on the company’s 48-acre working farm.

This is a somewhat new trend for senior living companies because residents from the “Great Generation” who grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression weren’t as interested in where their food came from. “If you think about the people in the Great Generation, they grew up on Bird’s Eye. Fresh vegetables are the frozen medley,” says Rogers. “The generation that’s moving in right now, they haven’t opened up a can or bag of vegetables in a really, really long time. They know what’s in season and they know what’s not in season.”

Both Rogers and Watson stress that this desire for fresh food can vary depending on where communities are located.

“On the coasts, people know what farro and quinoa is,” says Watson, adding that it differs in the middle of the country. “Green beans are a great example. On the coasts, we might have really crisp al dente green beans with almonds, and in the Midwest and the South, it’s green beans that have been cooked forever with bacon,” she says.

The key, she says, is to listen to what the communities want. “If it’s not important to them, we’re not going to force them to eat cage-free eggs.”

Trend #3: Focus on the individual.

Because so many residents moving into senior loving companies have an interest in – and opinions about – food, collaborating with residents is a part of a culinary team’s job. Atria has more than 20,000 resident and staff to please, and to ensure that everyone is happy, the company offers customer satisfaction surveys twice a year as well as dieticians on staff to work with residents with food allergy issues or special needs. Atria chefs at each community hold weekly or monthly “food for thought” meetings where the chef sits down with a group of residents to go over what they like and what they’d like to see on menus.

“We work very hard to treat each resident as an individual,” says Watson, who gives as an example a resident who regularly complained about the way the salmon was cooked at his community.

“Nobody could figure it out, so I gave him a chef’s coat, a chef’s hat and I brought him to the kitchen. I pulled out a piece of salmon and I said, ‘how would you have cooked this at home? I want you to walk me through every step.’ We made him a part of the process,” Watson says.

Another resident complained that he didn’t like the way the community made his scrambled eggs. “His wife always put one tablespoon of water in his scrambled eggs, so now, so do we,” says Watson.

“No matter how good our chef is, we’ll never be as good as the person not sitting at the table with the resident. One that they may have lost.”

Trend #4: Hiring top chefs.

One big trend in senior living dining is the quality of chefs designing the menus for and working in, communities.

Instead of hiring people who have been in the industry, senior living companies are seeking out chefs and staff with hospitality backgrounds and engaging personalities.

Watson, who came to Atria 22 years ago, designed the company’s culinary program not with the help of seasoned food service staff from hospitals and skilled nursing homes, but rather with the help of restaurant chefs who, she says, “had gone to some of the best culinary schools in the nation.”

Atria chefs come from country clubs, the hotel industry and restaurants including New York City’s renowned Nobu and Momofuku. Chefs at both Atria and Leisure Care have trained at renowned culinary schools including Le Cordon Bleu, Johnson and Wales and the Culinary Institute of America.

“Our focus is 100 percent making sure our residents get a world-class experience,” says Watson.

Trend #5: Variety, variety, variety.

According to Rogers, the changes happening in senior living communities start with the vernacular. “We have ‘restaurants,’ not ‘dining rooms,’” he points out.

Today’s modern seniors are not okay with sitting in the same dining room for three meals, 365 days a year while being offered a selection of only a few entrees and a couple of desserts.

They don’t want to be told where to eat and at what time. What they want is what they’re accustomed to: a variety of restaurant options available to them all day long.

To meet these expectations, and in an effort to have new residents join their communities, companies are revamping their residences. Some, like Leisure Care, are adding lounges off communal areas where people can pop in for a quick bite outside of the predictable meal hours. Others offer 24/7 “grab-and-go” fare like prepared salads, soups and paninis. Others have set up “fast casual” cafes where residents walk up and place their orders quickly, much like one does at a Chipotle or Panera Bread. Many, like Atria, are opening up bistros with fully operational grills where residents can order fresh-grilled burgers and steak fries. Of Atria’s 200-plus communities, about 30 so far have bistros.

This emphasis on casual offerings fits in better with the way seniors lived before they sold “the big house,” Rogers points out. Few people today eat in their formal dining rooms, he says, instead choosing to gather around a kitchen table, island or peninsula. So why should that change when one moves to an assisted living community?

What are your parents’ or senior loved ones’ favorite part of senior living dining? What’s on the menu there? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Julyne Derrick
Julyne Derrick
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