Voices of experience from the senior living culinary world share their tips for efficiency, engagement, and avoiding waste.
1. Go seasonal and local when you can. This makes for better quality and lower costs, but it also pays off in other ways, points out Morrison Living: with increased engagement and curiosity among residents about what’s new, by forging community connections among local farms and vendors, and in lower energy use for transport.
2. Make a meal an occasion. Particularly during times when in-room dining was required, senior living staff came up with some brilliant ideas to promote and special occasions and themes—personalized cookie kits, flowers, celebrations of regional and heritage cuisines. Taking time out for fun can have add up to better health in a community: staff get creative, positivity replaces loneliness, and food tastes better (so less is wasted).
3. Explore new options in grab-and-go. These items can increase quality and choice while decreasing labor needed, says Morrison Living, which has recently welcomed Sally, the Salad Robot to its team. It’s a vending machine that creates a custom salad to order—base, toppings, and dressing.
But robotics isn’t required to offer sandwiches, salads, and desserts for grab-and-go, and the quality of these items today is far above the pre-made sandwiches of the past. During COVID-19, many communities had to use pre-made and wrapped foods in order to stay within health guidelines. One side effect was culinary’s increased familiarity with how to source, make, and keep these items at their best for residents—and another was the chance for a little more freedom of choice during a tough time.
4. Thaw correctly. Frozen foods offer great variety, taste, and nutrition but can lose these if not properly handled. “Thaw food under refrigeration—not at room temperature—and covered,” counsels Mandy Sedlak, RS/REHS, food safety and public health manager at Ecolab. “Thawing food under running water can cause yield loss and decrease quality. When thawing food under running water is necessary, put food in a closed bag under running water of less than 70 degrees.”
5. Pare down your menu. This startling recommendation comes from Darren Tristano, CEO at FoodserviceResults. Here’s why it works: It requires that you get to know your residents and their tastes better, focusing on high-demand items and personalizing in a way that’s not possible with an overly large menu. “Managing your menu requires an understanding of which items [residents] order more frequently … Moving low-demand items off the menu can optimize kitchen protocols, especially when you can discontinue purchasing ingredients,” Tristano says. “Adding greater customization to existing items with already stocked items can balance the choices and keep your operations running smoothly.
6. Use smart teamwork. Morrison Living uses a “team prep concept” for food handling. For instance, one person may be chopping onions for their needs. But they also ask the other on the team whether they’ll need chopped onions, too. “Mundane prep tasks become consolidated,” Morrison writes. “Everyone saves time and energy, there’s less over-handling of products, and there’s reduced waste.” It also helps boost engagement and understanding of the value of working together.
Teamwork is also about common goals. Posting the community goals to reduce waste, have more engagement with residents, or keep food safety practices and measuring and mentioning progress creates an “everybody wins” spirit of competition and achievement.
7. Use professional association and government resources. Wherever you have memberships, you likely have access to training, content, job boards, and education. Currently, the ServSafe food safety program is offering two free online training modules on staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, one on re-opening and one on takeout and delivery issues. The videos cover safety practices, guidelines for using masks and gloves, transport equipment, guest contact precautions, and more (visit servsafe.com/Landing-Pages/Free-Courses).
Argentum members receive a 10 percent discount on ServSafe food safety training toward certification. Certification training must be done in person, not online, but ServSafe is providing COVID-19 protection protocols at in-person training sites. Visit argentum.org/servsafe.
State and federal government agencies offer a wealth of free material, including posters and videos in multiple languages. The CDC has a huge resource collection; get started at cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/activities/food.html, where you’ll find answers to questions ranging from how to cook chicken livers to how to talk to dining services workers about illness.
For the current crisis, the National Restaurant Association (restaurant.org) has free COVID-19 resources designed for specific challenges and types of dining services.
8. Tap into your team. Dining and executive directors don’t have to solve every challenge. When you’re looking for fresh menu ideas, ways to reduce costs, and processes that improve quality, Morrison Living recommends engaging every associate, including waitstaff and dishwashers. They have a first-hand view on kitchen challenges and resident preferences and contributing practical and creative ideas increases engagement.
9. Get the most out of your technology. Software and mobile devices can allow you to track resident preferences and dietary requirements from the table to how these will affect budgets. When you can track preferences, orders are more often correct, reducing waste, as Amy Wootton, RDN, director of nutrition at MatrixCare by ResMed. Getting the best value from tech means integration of purchasing, inventory, kitchen, and table.
Synching dietary software to census can help. “Having a dietary software program can help conquer that balancing act between how much to buy, what to buy, what residents prefer, and what I have on hand,” Wootton says.
10. Provide career pathways to attract and keep top-quality associates. At the beginning of the year, Trilogy Health Services saw dining services turnover drop from 47 percent to 23 percent in its Southeast division, due in part to a commitment to career pathways, integrating training, measurements, evaluation, and tracking progress toward professional goals. Using the Rouxbe online culinary school education modules, culinary service employees can work and learn their way up through a star system to become “four-star chefs.”
This comes with a series of raises at Trilogy but rewards and benefits apart from financial can also strengthen the relationship. For instance, you can celebrate culinary associates’ achievements in the community newsletter or video bulletins. Seeing people reach their goals is an inspiration to everyone, including residents.
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