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Hi everyone,
I was wondering from your collective experiences how you find the standard menu items in assisted living communities. I am asking because I have just started as Director of Culinary at a well respected community in my area. While I have many, many years of restaurant chef experience this sector is new to me. We are looking to "revamp" service and menus and would appreciate any suggestions. I would also love to hear positive experiences you and your families have had.

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Well! My mother's complaint in Independent Living was always that the vegetables, especially the green beans were overcooked.

I think various folks enjoy vegetables cooked different ways. Some people can't eat crunchy vegetables, and some folks love them. There needs to be variety!
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My mother was in a nursing home. She liked the meals. She liked that she didn't have to plan them or shop for them or serve them or cleanup afterward! She liked that she got to know the ladies who usually sat at her table. Oh, and she also liked the food.

When I asked aunts about their care center the first thing each of them said was "Oh the food is good!"

Sometimes the meals are the one thing people have to look forward to in a day. They are a way of measuring time. "It is almost time for lunch." Chefm I want you to know that you have a very important role in people's lives. It is probably more important that you please your customers that it ever was in a restaurant.

(When we brought treats in for staff, we always brought a plate or box for the kitchen staff. Family and visitors also recognize the importance of culinary services.) I'll post again with specifics. But I first wanted to congratulate you on your important new position.
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I have experience with several ALs. I echo other comments above about the importance of meals for AL residents. So, one place had a restaurant level chef. Everyone loved the food as did visitors. But, there was a change in staff and this chef was replaced by someone with less skill. The next place had a great chef. I was associated with someone in this center for 5 years. The chef changed 3 times and each time, the skills became less. The final place was memory care. I guess food wasn't as important there. or to that national organization. The meals were prepared by kitchen staff, no chef. AND both the choice and quality were rather poor.
Overall here are some thoughts - some may be a challenge due to budget considerations: Variety of food. Residents often joked about would you like chicken today or chicken? It seems that chicken would be on the menu in several forms at one meal. And how would you like your pasta today was the other favorite joke.
Cooking for a variety of seniors is THE challenge. Low sodium, easy to digest, easy to chew, foods within a budget lead to repetitious items.
One place did do theme weeks or nights. So, for events near a holiday, food themes were also introduced. Cook out days in the summer for example. Hot dogs and hamburgers and watermelon. Ice cream was often offered at 2 places but never at the third. Residents loved GOOD ice cream just as much as kids do! Depending upon the level of residents, if they don't get out much, bring treats in! One day, we brought over a stack of girl scout cookies (thin mints) for the table of 4 my loved one sat at. We couldn't have gotten as big a reaction if we brought each one a million dollars. The ladies reminisced about girl scouts, one had been a leader, badges, etc. It was the biggest hit EVER. Food brings memories and conversation. Good luck with your new position. The very fact that you are asking is a great sign for the residents you will be directing meals for.
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Soup! Where my mother is, in memory care, they serve soup at every lunch and dinner, as a first course. It's good tasty soup, with good broth and often fresh ingredients, obviously made there not canned, containing lots of solids, and they even manage to provide non-dairy soups for the lactose intolerant when giving cream soups to the others. My mother loves her soup, and this is one way they work to get the residents to take in liquids.
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My mom is in a NH but the menu is the same for the AL side of the facility and the meals are dismal. I see a few things that I would change if I could get control of the kitchen

Presentation. Even a good meal looks better when plated properly, a sad meal looks even worse when slopped on a plate like something being served at he prison cafeteria.

Value added thinking. People are eating there every meal, every day. Some thought should be given to tweaking recipes to boost nutrition... not plain custard but fruit custard, not a bran muffin but a banana bran muffin, chicken noodle soup made with real broth and not reconstituted powdered broth, desserts should not be a choice of cake or fruit but both, or a cake with fruit in the recipe.

And yes, it would be lovely if there was some thought given to menu items from a variety of cultures and not so heavily weighted between meat & potatoes and pasta.

I want to add here, you can tell the difference when the kitchen is run by someone who has had work experience in the restaurant business vs someone who has always cooked in institutions, it's like night and day!
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ChefM, please let us know how youre new job goes!

One thing they did at my mom's IL, they published a cookbook of resident's recipes. The chefs would make some of them from time to time.

You might do that and call the dish after the creator, i.e. Willie's Chili, Flos lemon meringue, etc.
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My mom lived in Independent Living and the meals there are too "old school" for mom. She wasn't much of a meat eater and there wasn't much for her that wasn't meat-focused. So a variety of non-meat entrees would be appreciated - particularly for the next generation coming up, who are used to eating more variety and more ethnic dishes. And non-meat entrees *should* be healthier, if they're not loaded with fat and cheese.
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I agree with all the answers so far!! My mom's in AL & everyone raves about the food. Personally, it's too predictable and boring. Even my mom craves a GREEN SALAD once in awhile. And SOUP! Mom always orders soup when we go out, because they never have it. We assume that the staff doesnot want to have to worry about some residents spilling on themselves. It has to be tough and I think they do the best they can to suit all the residents, so that they do not have to cook too many things and have a lot go to waste.
Mom's chef offers "breakfast to order" - cereals to choose from, eggs to order, sausage or bacon, pancakes, muffins, toast, juices, milk. "Lunch" at noon is called dinner (because it's the larger meal) - usually some type of casserole (or meat & potatoes), a vegetable dish, & maybe a Jello (or creamy) fruit salad (or canned fruit) & dessert like small piece of cake, coffee. The evening meal is called "supper" (it's a midwest thing LOL.) - a small sandwich, a veggie side like pickled beets or coleslaw, maybe a few potato chips & a cookie.
Oh and on Wednesday they do "snack on a cart" where the activities director goes room to room offering packaged snack items for them to choose from.
All in all, we are very happy with the meals there. I join her from time to time. And when I visit, I bring things like fresh apples & oranges (they do put a half banana & small glass of orange juice out for each person every breakfast), a few baby carrots, celery, etc., and also keep her tiny fridge stocked with bread for toast, butter & jam. Her cupboards have grahams and saltines, peanut butter, popcorn for her little micro, etc. And a couple cans of those heat in the can soups. That way, if she doesn't feel like being sociable, she just eats her own stuff in her room. The gals are great though about bringing her a tray from the kitchen too, if she wants to sit & watch L. Welk on T. V.! We can't complain!!
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chefm123, another thought, be very light with the seasonings. I know as one ages their sense of taste dims, but a heavy hand on the spices can ruin a nice meal.

When I was in the hospital a couple years ago, I knew they had a new chef as everything was loaded with spices. Seriously, give me mashed potatoes with a glop of butter or gravy, don't need rosemary and other spices thrown in :)
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Wow, thanks for all the answers!
Food plays an incredibly important role in peoples lives and I (within the craaaaazy budget) really hope to make meals a bright time to eat, drink and be merry! Fresh not frozen going into the summer to totally doable within budget and it makes me wonder why seasonal was not taken advantage of before.
Thank you for all the input
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