Oftentimes in healthcare settings, particularly long-term care facilities such as independent or assisted living and nursing homes, mealtime can be the highlight of the day. A time when conversations and laughter fill the room, where friends and families meet and when staff can connect with residents. An irreplaceable and unique social hour that stems from human nature of community bonding over food.

Beyond just impacting the culture and social climate that heavily impact the minds of potential residents, it’s also a necessary element for proper substance and nutrition, which can be critical when caring for the elderly.

Recently, attitudes toward foodservice offerings in healthcare have shifted. Strides are being made elevating food offerings far above and beyond the preconceived molds of infamous plastic trays and green Jello. Today’s senior societies feature fresh, local ingredients from on-site gardens served with a side of presentational flair.

These changes are happening with strong intent and purpose, as patient care and nutrition are top priorities, can become powerful marketing tools for drawing in potential residents and even assist in employee retention.

High-Quality Food, Local Ingredients, and Executive Chefs

If you can’t shake the Jello taste out of your mouth, our first trend will revive your taste buds. Our number one, most influential trend in healthcare is focusing on fresh and local food and made-to-order concepts. Implementation of this trend vastly varies depending on the level of care provided, size and location of the facility and many other factors but the goal remains the same—delicious tasting food with high nutritional content.

For those who strive for a hospitality or resort-like model of healthcare, a sit-down restaurant style of food delivery is becoming increasingly popular. Leather bound menus, tablecloths with flowers and Executive Chefs moving from table to table is not unheard of. Further removing the monotony from scheduled meal periods these restaurants are successful at creating unique experiences throughout the day. For example, breakfast can be more informal with buffets and limited a la carte options, for lunch transition into made-to-order items from the grill and dinner could be a more formal atmosphere with chef’s tasting courses and other specials.

If residents are more independent and physically able, marketplace-style serveries which dominate other industries like corporate and higher education are becoming increasingly popular. A series of stations or micro-restaurants fight menu fatigue by catering to all genres of food, ranging from homemade falafel and pita to wood-fired pizzas and gourmet salads. Transforming the dull dining hall into a lively place of action benefits more than just the food program. The smells, sights, and stimulation created have been proven to engage seniors’ senses and stimulate appetites.

To increase variety even further, the platforms can be specifically designed and outfitted with adaptable equipment. Resulting in platforms that have the potential to serve pancakes and eggs in the morning then change to a made-to-order grill in the afternoon. Steps can be taken in the design process for future modification, making it easy to adapt new trends and concepts in the future. If your make-your-own sushi station never catches on, you could modify it to become something more favored.

A simpler approach that still showcases farm-to-table creations is adding a mobile food cart for chef demonstrations and food tastings—either during the meal periods or as a separate event.

Other successful implementations include on-site gardens where the produce is being harvested and incorporated into meals. These gardens can double in their purpose and be used as a community outreach— sharing plots with neighbors and inviting them into garden with residents, as an example.

Some facilities are taking on larger commitments by hosting on-site bee hives for harvesting honey, chickens for farm-fresh eggs and even goats for specialty cheeses. Again, a community outreach can be leveraged here for educational sessions or selling the surplus as a unique fundraiser.

Variety, Variety, Variety

If we haven’t mentioned it enough yet, variety is key for these long stay establishments and the foodservice programs should be designed with that in mind. Another popular avenue to, especially for facilities with multiple buildings, or on large campuses, is a decentralization of foodservice. Rather than one big main dining area, multiple smaller outlets are being introduced for around the clock foodservice options and added levels of customization. For example, a café with light breakfast foods and upscale coffee could be added as supplementary outlet to your main dining area, or an afterhours grab-n-go option could be introduced. In assisted and independent living situations, small grocery items or pre-packaged grab-n-go options are available for residences to purchase and eat at their leisure. Often, offering selection and variety in food choices can make the transition easier for newcomers into long term care.

Inviting outside vendors in is also becoming increasingly popular. Some facilities are partnering with local ice cream shops, cafés, bakeries, and juice bars to lease out space within their buildings. This approach is also a great way to connect with the local community and offer an added perk to visitors.

Double Duty: Delighting Residents and Staff

Obviously, residents and their families are top of mind when considering foodservice options for a new build or renovations but consider the impact on employees as well. Your food program aids in supporting healthy meals to your residents and acts as a marketing tool for outreach, but it could also be shifted to be used as a recruitment tool. Offering fully prepared, healthy meals to eat on-site or to take home to employees’ families is a huge perk that can enhance benefits packages to set you apart from other facilities.

The modern and evolving landscape of healthcare foodservice is opening windows of opportunities for senior care facilities to differentiate themselves, showcase specialty ingredients and promote nutritional wellbeing— catering not only to residents but to their families, employees, and local communities.