Dished: Homestyle Meets Healthy to Improve Senior Living Dining

Finding the balance between much-loved comfort foods and healthier options is one of the struggles faced by senior living chefs nationwide—even award-winning ones.

After all, serving healthy grains instead of fried chicken to senior living residents in Birmingham, Alabama, is likely to be met with resistance and complaints, St. Vincent’s Birmingham Executive Chef Mike Coots of TouchPoint Support Services tells Senior Housing News. An annual senior living dining competition Coots recently participated in is aiming to change that.

Coots was the 2017 winner of Morrison Community Living’s annual Food Fight competition, hosted by celebrity chef Jet Tila and styled after television cooking challenges, including sabotage stunts that force the contestants to push their creative culinary boundaries.

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Morrison, a food service contract management company that works with CCRCs, skilled nursing facilities, assisted living communities and more, has been hosting Food Fights for four years to give their chefs the opportunity to network and explore new food service ideas. Morrison is a subsidiary of foodservice and support services company Compass Group, along with Bateman Community Living and TouchPoint Support Services. Coots works with Touchpoint to provide meals to patients at St. Vincent’s Birmingham, a hospital that provides in-patient, out-patient and ICU care. 

Food Fights is just one of many events in recent years to elevate senior dining, with celebrated chefs stepping into the industry to design menus that are flavorful, regional and healthy—all in one. The result is meals that residents enjoy, with local dishes that are familiar and loved, but also prepared in healthy ways. Satisfied and healthy residents are lasting residents, and innovative dining can be a key factor in encouraging longer stays within a senior living community.

Balancing Regional Favorites With Healthy Choices 

During Coots’ time participating in the 2017 Food Fight competition, he got the chance to tour the Hillcrest Retirement Community kitchens, where the event was held. Located in La Verne, California, Hillcrest is an amenity-rich continuing care retirement community that offers independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing units.

At Hillcrest, Coots noted that healthy, fresh and local ingredients were abundant. This just fueled the fire of Coots’ ongoing passion for serving healthful and diverse dishes to his diners. However, this mission comes with obstacles.

“One of the most difficult challenges is that our clientele and region are used to having rich foods, so they want mac and cheese, collard greens and fried chicken,” Coots says. “When I first got [to St. Vincent’s], I wanted to start incorporating grains, quinoa, and barley, but it’s not always popular. I want to get to a position to support a more healthy and sustainable menu.”

St. Vincent’s Birmingham is a hospital that provides in-patient, out-patient and ICU care, so Coots also has to accommodate dietary restrictions and calorie count requirements in meals for patients. In his menu for the cafeteria and bistro, he said that he has more room to play with seasonal dishes and the incorporation of superfoods like stone fruits, which he chooses on a monthly basis in consultation with dietitians.

Still, Coots admits that it can be challenging to get residents to try new types of foods or to enjoy healthy options. When possible, he tries to make alterations to dishes so that they are healthier, such as taking out richer ingredients and replacing them with healthy grains or other ingredients that can achieve a similar end result. Plus, he says that it is all about balance. He offers healthy dishes, but doesn’t take cherished, regional classics off the menu.

This combination of culinary innovation and resident satisfaction is at the heart of Food Fight’s mission, according to Dori Mendel, senior communications manager for Morrison.

“Our chefs get a lot of opinions in community living, and it’s our responsibility to make residents feel comfortable, try new things and have access to healthy options,” Mendel says. “We are able to offer healthful meals while still doing favorites. Sometimes it’s a mashup, finding ways to make classic dishes more healthy.”

Culinary Challenge 

Food Fights have taken place yearly since 2014 with the goal of “folding in Morrison’s business partners, recruiting new chefs and, most importantly, giving chefs the opportunity to network and be empowered to innovate,” says Mendel.

This year, 50 initial entries from Compass Group chefs were narrowed down to four finalists: chefs Shaun Miller and Ryan McCoy from Morrison Community Living, as well as Gregory Clemons and Coots from TouchPoint. These four participated in the final, live-streamed event, held at Hillcrest Retirement Community in LaVerne, California, and sponsored by RICH’s, Hormel, KraftHeinz and Chef Works.

Under the eye of Tila, who served as a judge, the finalists prepared on-trend dishes, despite hurdles thrown at them by organizers of the event. For instance, while preparing his winning dish, Coots was challenged to use only a children’s tea set in lieu of mixing bowls. Undeterred, he created a surf ’n’ turf spread, including a ceviche appetizer with Peruvian carnitas and a shrimp entree, even though he only had dried shrimp to work with.

“Food Fight was one of the best culinary experiences of my life, not just for the competition—which was so much like what you see on TV—but also thanks to how well we were treated, plus given the opportunity to work with great chefs,” Coots says. “I appreciate the help from my director Doug Riddle and all of our senior leaders within Compass that gave us the opportunity to do that.” 

The experience reignited goals that had already been important to Coots, and provided him with some new inspiration to build on. Chefs in the senior living space have to accommodate the needs of the particular community they serve, and every type of community, from independent living communities to skilled nursing facilities, presents its own challenges. Coots has to meet the expectations of in-patients and out-patients at St. Vincent’s Birmingham, but he said that networking with chefs of continuing care retirement communities provided new inspiration.

“Being able to discuss what they do and bounce ideas of likeminded individuals was huge,” Coots said. “I can apply that passion to what I do here at St. Vincent’s.”

Written by Elizabeth Jakaitis

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