How Senior Living Dining is Adapting for Next-Generation Residents

As the oldest baby boomers begin their transition to senior living, they are bringing with them a greater education about food and drink. As a result, senior housing operators are adding flexibility to their dining programs to accommodate these changes.

This flexibility was the focus of “New Dining Formats for the Next Generation of Senior Living Residents,” a panel discussion at Senior Housing News’ DISHED 2019 event, March 7 in Chicago. Providers across the country are adapting to the changing times, and sharing their best practices with each other, Five Star Senior Living Regional Director of Food and Dining Eric Lindholm said.

“It’s a very competitive marketplace, but also very collaborative,” Lindholm said. “Foodservice professionals respect one another.”

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Dining as an experience

One overarching theme during the discussion was a demand among boomers for dining as an experience. The boomers have embraced trends, including a-la-carte pricing, family-style and casual dining, farm-to-fork cooking, seasonal offerings, sustainability, vegetarian and vegan menus, gluten-restricted options, cooking exhibitions and global cuisines. This is a stark contrast to the tastes of the Silent Generation currently in senior living, Lindholm said.

Lindholm has personal experience with the growing interest in global cuisines on dining menus. He shared an experience from early in his career where he prepared couscous for a board of directors event at a former employer, but the cook he was working with had never worked with couscous before and made too much. Lindholm tried to put the excess to good use by adding a couscous salad option on the salad bar that evening.

It went over like a lead balloon.

“I was literally crucified in the dining room by the residents,” he said. “They had never seen couscous before.”

Today, residents and directors want to know why couscous and other global cuisines are not on menus more often. Lindholm attributed this change to greater awareness among newer senior living residents. They are better traveled, and hence more educated on international fare.

“They have a point of reference that perhaps the generation prior did not have,” he said.

Redefining dining in senior living extends beyond residents’ demands and tastes, Enlivant Vice President of Dining and Nutrition Jim Freeland said. Residents and their guests want a total dining experience combining quality food with exemplary dining room service.

Culinary directors adapting their food and beverage programs increasingly find themselves looking to satisfy varying demands from residents and their adult children, as well as regulators who drive processes on how these programs should be implemented and maintained.

To facilitate this, culinary directors are using traditional restaurant and hospitality practices — such as tracking menu mix matrices and popularity indexes — to identify popular menu items, balance high- and low-cost items to satisfy balance sheets and satisfy the needs of residents and their children.

“It’s the same as in a restaurant,” Freeland said. “We’re telling the adult children of residents, ‘We hear you. We need to hear from your parents, as well. Let’s figure this menu out together.’”

To that end, Chicago-based Enlivant is moving toward cleaner, simpler presentations, as well as smaller portions, using height, balance, color and flavor to drive the menu.

“We’re trying to address the overall resident experience as we’re building menus that evolve daily,” Freeland said. These menus are community-specific and are designed for culinary programs to evolve resident needs as they enter a community.

Doing more with less

As residents’ tastes evolve, smaller kitchens are being tasked to do more with limited space, said Gottfried Ernst, vice president of hospitality for senior housing communities at Green Courte Partners. Chicago-based Green Courte owns and operates the True Connections Communities independent living and active adult brand.

Because Green Courte is a value-add buyer, its communities lack multiple dining venues, but the company is seeking ways to adapt current trends. In two communities, it is piloting a steakhouse program.

“We may have family-style dining one day, a more formal dinner the next,” Ernst said. “We’re rolling out different concepts for different days.”

Green Courte is exploring its options outside the kitchen. It has partnered with local restaurants at several communities to cater meals for residents who have expressed an appetite for dining outside the premises. Alternatively, residents can have a simple catering menu delivered to their living quarters via UberEats. Green Courte is launching a monthly sushi service in some Midwestern communities, after its research indicated sushi was popular in the region.

The push toward greater culinary accommodation also moved Green Courte to create Blue Apron-style meal kits in two communities, so that residents can order meals for their visitors.

The greater demand for dining flexibility is forcing culinary directors to strike a balance between the excitement generated on the dining room floor with the practicality of kitchen operations, said Shelly Glasgow, director of foodservice product development for Libbey Inc.

This requires investment in high-quality tableware, glassware and utensils that can be used for multiple uses, in various settings. These products also need to be stackable because of a kitchen’s limited space.

“One glass can be used to serve multiple drinks,” Glasgow said. “Dishes and trays can serve multiple uses and serving styles.”

To create the excitement in the front of house, culinary directors are also embracing color contrasts such as darker tablecloths offsetting white plates, or vice versa. That color contrast extends to what is being served, as well. Leafy greens and garnishes such as parsley are being used in dishes to accentuate the neutral colors of food items on a plate.

“Younger chefs are not afraid of color,” Glasgow said. “They’re mixing and matching colors and shapes.”

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