Choice, Health, Vibes: How Senior Living Operators Are Preparing to Feed the Boomers

More choices, healthy fare, more casual dining — these are among the top ways that senior living operators are preparing to feed the baby boomers in 2024 and beyond.

In recent years, senior living operators have put a lot of thought into what the boomers are going to want out of senior living communities. Many culinary leaders have come away with the notion that the boomers want much of the same amenities and services they already enjoy while frequenting restaurants and traveling.

While operators might have striven to cater to resident preferences with pot roast or other classic comfort foods in the past, the boomers are bringing a growing appetite for more global cuisine and fresh fare. They are also looking for more varied kinds of upscale dining services, not only white-tablecloth-style venues.


Instilling more wellness in senior living dining is also not a new trend, but it is one that has staying power in the years ahead as the boomers increasingly move into senior living.

All of this is underscored by the fact that senior living operators must simultaneously solve their staffing challenges to pivot from recovery to growth in the year ahead.

The way forward seems like it is going to lean heavily on taking individualized approaches for dining programs and shifting to a more casual dining setting, according to Caitlin Rogers, VP of dining and programming services at Sunrise Senior Living.


“That might mean all-day dining instead of set meal times,” Rogers said. “And from a choice and variety perspective, making sure we have something on our menus to meet all of our residents’ needs.”

Increased options, casual choices

Senior living operators have embraced more culinary choices in a variety of ways in recent years, from creating fast-casual dining venues to launching a food truck. And Wake Robin Dining Director Kate Hays believes the forces driving operators to those outcomes are here to stay.

Wake Robin, a life plan community in Shelburne, Vermont, has dining rooms with open-kitchen concepts to give residents more visibility and control over their plates. If something isn’t to a resident’s liking, most of the time they can make a swap for something else. The community also is known for holding farmer’s markets for residents and catering to preferences for more plant-based meal options.

Hays said that newer residents in the community desire more services on a concierge basis.

Choice, along with creating more casual dining settings, are still big trends in senior living dining, according Andrew Moret, vice president of culinary services at Oakmont Management Group. The Irvine, California-based company has shifted dining at its Ivy Living brand communities to a more fast-casual model that allows residents to pick their protein and sides rather than having assigned meals.

Residents in 2023 are also asking for more varied diets, including meals that are gluten-free, vegetarian and allergy-conscious meals, Moret added. Health and wellness are two big reasons why.

“There is a lot more focus on wanting to know what they are putting in their body, as well as a lot more focus on healthier and more options,” he said.

Sunrise Senior Living in the past year has placed new emphasis on lifestyle-oriented senior living as a result of a new vision statement for the company. That philosophy includes the belief that there is no one-size-fits-all way to feed residents, according to Rogers. The company is catering to the incoming boomers through day-dining and more casual menu choices like sandwiches and burgers. The operator also works with dietitians and community chefs to ensure residents are getting “what they want and what they like,” Rogers said.

“We’re beginning to see a different type of customer coming to us,” she said. “What we are seeing is that the dining experience is part of our key lifestyle offerings … that creates a sense of community, nourishment and enjoyment. It deserves to be as individualized as each of our residents is.”

Senior living operations are still a mix of hospitality and health care at the end of the day, and operators must often navigate ways to both keep residents fed with healthy fare while serving food they enjoy eating.

Oakmont Senior Living is piloting a program to incorporate high calorie and high protein smoothies for residents that aren’t the typical supplemental shakes often seen for residents. Moret said working with their organizational dietitian is helping to revamp their menus that are “more designed for a senior” with the appropriate dietary needs, but also “looks really good and tastes really good.”

While resident offerings are going to be dependent on the kitchen, there has also been a shift towards more health-conscious offerings and farm to table sourcings.

“There’s a lot of hype right now about growing our own food in the summer and having that be part of the resident experience,” Pamela Filby, vice president of sales for Benchmark Senior Living, told Senior Housing News. “That’s one trend we’re seeing.”

Food remains a challenge

It’s no secret that food is still a challenge in senior living communities. As senior living operators grapple with higher costs, choosier residents and staffing woes, they are taking some cues from other industries.

As senior living budgets have ballooned in recent years, operators have looked to slow the increase in their food spending through a variety of ways, including by eliminating food waste and joining up with group purchasing organizations (GPO) that can save dollars on the bottom line.

Cost crunches can make finding quality ingredients harder, and operators have been forced to balance the quality of their dining programs with the cost of providing it.

For example, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Benchmark Senior Living has tweaked its procurement processes to get supplies at a more affordable rate without having to sacrifice quality or substantially pass big costs onto the residents, Filby said.

“A major goal has been to provide the same quality of food and the same dining experiences we’ve always had … We don’t want to skimp on that,” Filby said. “Everything has gone up dramatically.”

One strategy that some operators have wielded to success is soliciting feedback through forming resident groups to get an understanding of what they want to eat.

For example, Wake Robin’s culinary leaders consult a resident advisory group that weighs in on menu options. That effort has resulted in catering to resident wants by seeking local partnerships and serving plant-based fare that is made in ways that are better for the environment.

While some residents have pushed for entirely meatless days, Hays said she doesn’t want to deprive anybody of their preferred meals. However, she does want to allow residents the option to try foods whenever possible.

Staffing has been a thorn in the side of senior living culinary directors since even before the pandemic, and to that end the industry has no magic-bullet solutions. But some companies, such as San Francisco-based Priya Living, have adopted operational practices that could be a blueprint for other companies as they grapple with their own staffing challenges.

The communities cater to a low-acuity, active adult crowd that is largely self-sufficient. As such, Priya enables them to make their own culinary decisions using tools like self-service ordering technology, according to Priya Living Head of Innovation Anjan Mitra.

“We have to find a more efficient way to operate these dining services,” Mitra said. “That’s one of the big things we’re seeing coming out of necessity.”

In addition, Mitra said he has been looking at how local restaurants are built so staff can work the floor more efficiently, such as creating venues with open floor plans and keeping them flexible with staff trained for multiple kinds of uses.

Wake Robin is also opening an unoccupied kitchen for residents to use and cook together. That way, residents cooking together doubles as a social event.

“It could be hosting a community potluck, it could hosting a holiday dinner, it could be a resident run coffee shop,” Hays said. “I think there’s going to be more of that as staffing models continue to be challenging.”

Given that it powers every facet of a senior living community, staffing is sure to be a big industry issue in the year ahead, just as it has been in previous years. .

“That’s the continued opportunity,” Rogers said. “It’s creating longevity in our team members and nurturing our strong culture so we can provide the care and services that our residents need and demand.” 

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