Senior living foodservice bears many similarities to what you might find in any other organized form of dining—or in some cases, exactly what you might find in a restaurant.
But there’s one distinct challenge found among senior living providers when it comes to planning and delivering meals to some of the clientele: food that can be enjoyed without the help of a fork, knife or in some cases, teeth.
For a proportion of the aging population who suffers from memory impairment or lack of cognitive function, eating without common utensils is a daily challenge. But gone are the days when highly processed or soft foods were the only options.
Enter: Grind dining.
Grind Dining is the brainchild of two former foodservice professionals, Sarah Gorham and Stone Morris who are both chefs and have served in hospitality management roles among other foodservice professions.
They were hired as culinary consultants by The Arbor Company to develop a dining program for their memory care residents that met their individual and nutritional needs as well as providing all residents a dignified and quality dining experience.
“We found that finger food was an underserved area,” says Gorham. “It was part of the strategic plan to provide more variety and balance for memory care.”
After an observation, the team, whose tagline is “Dining with Dignity,” found that by no fault of the staff or suppliers, residents were largely existing on finger foods like chicken finger, peanut butter and jelly and applesauce, and that the food often wasn’t able to be served hot.
“It was no fault of the kitchen staff,” says Morris. “They were just ill equipped and didn’t know what to do. We hoped there was an answer. There had to be something we could do.”
The concept was inspired by the memory of Morris’s great grandmother, known as “Bubbie,” who in her childhood had often prepared gefilte fish (“a.k.a. the ‘holy grail’ of Jewish Appetizers,” Morris says), a cooked, ground, and poached whitefish, for a Sabbath meal. The partners had the inspiration to grind cooked traditional food items to preserve taste, texture, and composition of the menu items for residents.
The team also leaned on research from the University of Alabama and Harvard University that found cooked and ground proteins were 24% more digestible than just cooked or raw proteins.They began adding carbohydrates and vegetables for complete meals that were nutritionally complete and didn’t require eating with a fork, knife or spoon or require chewing in order to consume. The anthropologists and scientists used Burmese Pythons for their research due to the fact that the pythons don’t have teeth.
The Grind Dining concept includes a training component where the Grind team works with a community’s dining services team to analyze and rearrange the menu and come up with new takes on menu components.
The equipment, which usually requires little more than a food grinder, is usually already on site with the food costs already built in. The team then develops menu extensions for each meal service and provides menu direction such as portions, vegetable garnishes and photos of completed meals. The menu doesn’t change, but one menu item is converted a la Grind Dining’s method and technique.
“It’s usually not an easy finger food conversion,” Gorham says. “It might be brisket. Or spaghetti and meatballs. Once we develop those extensions, we put together a tool kit for the community to train.”
To get around the lack of utensils often demanded by memory care units, Grind Dining utilizes lollipop sticks, popsicle sticks and other disposable tools that can help a resident enjoy a meal without the traditional finger food experience.
The food might look different, but the presentation and taste are maintained. Sometimes aromatics are also used to incite the senses of memory care residents before eating.
The outcome from the Grind Dining pilot and implementation was several-fold. Resident family members reported that the residents expressed more enjoyment of their meals, a renewed sense of anticipation at mealtimes, and were more engaged and had responded favorably to the new menu offerings. Likewise, caregivers reported improved experience during meal times and residents needing a lot less help than they had previously.
Some communities have rolled out the program to other residents as well.
“Every community is different,” said Gorham. “Some said this was designed for memory care, but others found it to be so successful they rolled it out into their main dining rooms. It meets their dental needs and nutrition needs.”
Ultimately the program has worked best when it gains the buy-in of the entire community, regardless of need. Comparison plates have showed that the taste can be maintained even if the format has changed.
“It can be used as a point of distinction,” Gorham says. “Dining is an important consideration.”
Written by Elizabeth Ecker