Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Aegis Living brought on board an enterprise culinary service director over the summer and now is making progress on a new, wellness-focused approach to dining.
Behind the scenes, the culinary leaders with the Bellevue, Washington-based provider are making incremental changes to menus in order to boost the amount of nutritious, healthy food residents are eating. Aegis is also mindful of how much change residents can stomach at once, and is working to balance wellness with food choices that residents actually like to eat, Enterprise Culinary Service Director Ashleigh Pedersen said during Senior Housing News’ recent DISHED event, held virtually.
“When you push it to one extreme — let’s use quinoa and kale [as an example] — and say that that’s going to be our base item, wellness becomes scary,” she said. “Our vision for wellness here at Aegis is to make sure that it’s approachable, and that you take the change in small steps.”
At the same time, Aegis is seeing more interest from residents in plant-based food options. And while most residents aren’t seeking to become vegans or vegetarians, they are interested in incorporating more of these foods into their diets.
One step at a time
Joining a senior living provider and launching a new dining program during Covid-19 is a daunting undertaking, but Pedersen was confident in part because of her knowledge of Aegis. Previously, she was senior business solutions specialist with US Foods, in which role she worked with Aegis and was impressed by the company.
Pedersen also is passionate about the shift toward wellness that is occurring within senior living, and has a vision for how culinary offerings can be linchpins of these new operating models. In recent years, more senior living providers have put resident wellness in the foreground, with a greater emphasis on how to enhance older adults’ lifestyles with a proactive approach, rather than a more reactive approach of caring for their needs as they crop up. The wellness approach fits evolving consumer expectations and preferences and also can help drive health care partnerships, as senior living providers show they can prevent expensive interventions.
But Pedersen is taking a deliberate approach, aware that change is even more difficult than usual in the current environment. In her first months on the job, she’s helped push the culinary programs at Aegis’ 32 communities toward more healthful yet subtle menu changes.
For example, the company is working in more plant-based cuisine and marketing these items to residents with special menu designations. Aegis has also worked to use different ingredients that might bring added health benefits, such as yellow rice flavored with turmeric.
“We may have called something vegetarian in the item description historically, but now there is a little carrot on the menu that’s indicating to the resident that this is now a plant-based item, or that there’s a plant based alternative,” Pedersen said.
To make residents aware of some of the more healthful offerings, Aegis has started sending out a newsletter to residents and their families illustrating recent trends in food and nutrition. The newsletter also includes more information about some of the wellness-focused foods residents are now finding on their plates.
“It’s taking some of those smaller things, calling them out, and then putting the messaging together around it,” Pedersen said. “We’re taking small steps, and then making sure that we’ve communicated that out to the residents and families.”
Aegis is also communicating with its chefs in a similar way. The company sends out an internal “fresh sheet” to culinary directors with planned changes, nutritional facts and other helpful information.
Additionally, the company is implementing more wellness-focused culinary programs in all of its acuity levels, including memory care, where Aegis is rewriting and reprogramming some of its menus to make them more interactive and engaging to the senses.
“Take something that is very familiar or comforting, even like a traditional slice of pizza,” Pedersen said. “How does that get modified then for textured modified diets so that they still have the ability to have that comfort food item, but it’s in a consistency that is safe for them?”
There are some challenges to elevating a culinary program with more wellness offerings, and chief among them for many senior living providers now is cost. To that end, Aegis is looking to move to more sustainable or healthy choices that don’t blow up its budget.
For example, where the company usually serves a standard six-ounce chicken breast, it now might instead choose a four-ounce chicken breast that is antibiotic- and hormone-free. Or, the company might choose a low-sodium can of beans over one that costs the same but contains more salt.
“You’re still meeting the residents’ needs, and you’re able to move toward the healthier approach or a more sustainable choice of meat and the proteins that are being offered,” Pedersen said. “And that’s cost neutral.”
Aegis is also cutting down on the amount of convenience foods it uses, and instead making more items from scratch. That way, chefs have greater control over ingredients, and thus can have a handle on things like sodium and fat content.
Skepticism among residents is another challenge. But Aegis has found it can offer residents foods they’ve always enjoyed, with a wellness-focused twist. For example, the company might offer to serve a hamburger with a side salad instead of french fries, or serve breakfast with fresh fruit on the side.
“The resident still has the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I still want my french fries, that’s my comfort food item,’” Pedersen said. “We’re not going to say no, but we’re not going to lead with the option that may not be the healthiest choice.”
Looking ahead, Pedersen is focused on more ways the provider can offer flavorful and healthful food. She takes particular inspiration from food blogs, and routinely bookmarks new recipes to test out for implementation in Aegis’ communities.
“I saw a Halloween charcuterie board that was all candy and … that’s perfect from an in-room dining experience right now with Covid,” Pedersen said. “So I think it’s looking at those different elements and kind of thinking outside the box.”