Chefs Tailor Menus in Senior Living Communities

Chef Making Food

Both taste and dietary needs are top of mind for chefs creating meals for seniors.

Dustin Homen likes to practice what he calls “stealth health.”

As the senior executive chef at White Sands La Jolla, Homen knows residents are fond of comfort food. Many harbor passionate opinions about what makes a perfect meatloaf or the best macaroni and cheese. With that in mind, he and other chefs create entrees that look and taste comforting. The stealth comes in with the contents—chefs sneak in ingredients that make each dish nutritionally balanced and as unprocessed as possible.

“When it comes to the residents, my priorities are split between healthful eating and quality of life,” he says.

Homen oversees White Sands La Jolla’s culinary department—from menu planning and cooking to themed dinner parties and cooking demonstrations. As with chefs at all communities, his job ultimately comes down to keeping residents at all levels of care satisfied. But the chefs also work hard to tailor meals to specific dietary needs, depending on residents’ level of care and personal preferences.

Feedback and adjustments

Homen and his staff meet monthly with the residents food committee, both to take requests and to provide “seasonality reports” on the best available fruits, vegetables and protein for the particular time of year.  The committee acts as a sounding board for residents’ ideas.

E. Mae Sparks, 95, has served on the committee for the past two years out of the 19 she’s lived at White Sands La Jolla. “My expertise is listening and bringing what I hear from all different tables in the dining room to the committee meetings,” she says. “I sit at 20–25 different tables a week to gain their feedback.”

In another setting, Chef William Scalese’s kitchen at Kirkwood Orange in Orange, California, serves residents in assisted living and memory care. There, all menus contain the same nutrients as other communities, Scalese says. “The only variation we will make is texture modification to make foods easier to eat.”

Nutrition for seniors

Of course, it can’t all be treats and personal favorites. Chefs must consider dietary needs. For those who have health concerns such as diabetes, Scalese always makes a sugar-free version of any dessert so that everyone can enjoy the same treat.

Beyond limiting sugar, it’s important to pay attention to the general makeup of a plate, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietician and national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As part of her private nutrition consulting business in Burbank, California, Frechman provides one-on-one nutrition education and counseling at an area senior center. She follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “MyPlate” dietary guidelines, which recommend dividing every meal plate into equal quarters of protein, carbohydrates, fruit and vegetable servings, with a dairy serving on the side.

Seniors in more sedentary assisted living or skilled nursing settings need to be especially careful to get enough protein in their diets, Frechman says. This is vital for those in post-surgical recovery. “Protein keeps your immune system strong and builds muscles and bones,” she says. “If you’ve broken a hip, you should have protein at every meal.”

At White Sands La Jolla, a full-time nutrition team supports the kitchen, including a nutrition specialist who assists in adapting foods to specific nutritional needs. “Those who are active and interested in nutrition don’t want to gain weight, so we offer lots of lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables,” Homen says. “But for those who are frailer, we offer nutrient-enriched shakes, for instance, to provide more caloric density and to prevent weight loss.”

Striking a balance between nutritional needs and residents’ culinary desires is what Homen enjoys most about his work. “The biggest reward for me is when you realize you are really making someone’s life better,” Homen says. “You find the right foods that they enjoy, and you see their energy come back. And it’s not some medicine—it’s just food.”

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