Retirement communities dishing up creative meals for senior ‘foodies’
By Nancy Maes
Pictured above: Octopus at The Clare. Photo by Chef Hagop Hagopian
Not too long ago, the stereotypical meal in a retirement home might have included nondescript meat, vegetables from a can and bright-colored Jell-O offered in a dreary setting. But as the culinary scene has grown more creative, the palate of senior citizens has become more sophisticated. So, when they move into a continuing-care retirement community, their high expectations are on the table.
“People are more educated about the importance of the quality of food, so we’re seeing a lot more so-called foodies now,” says Brian Hughes, director of dining services at The Clare in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. “We’re keeping up-to-date with all the new cooking techniques and going out to restaurants within walking distance of The Clare and then doing everything that the fine-dining restaurants are doing.”
In the 17th- floor dining room with a panoramic view, The Clare offers residents a variety of ordering options including an à la carte menu of dishes prepared with seasonal, local ingredients such as bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar and mozzarella; Vesuvio-style chicken breast served with roasted redskin potatoes and tricolor carrots, and a cobbler of freshly picked peaches.
Senior Lifestyle retirement communities in the Chicago area and throughout the United States reflect that trend.
“There has been a real shift away from a cafeteria-style meal service to a more elegant, fine-dining, multioption experience,” says Tony Aloise, vice president of Senior Lifestyle’s dining services. At dinnertime, diners at a Senior Lifestyle residence might choose lobster bisque, followed by pecan-crusted chicken breast served with mushroom-and-barley risotto, sautéed summer squash with caramelized onions and a sugar-free blueberry strudel.
Stella Baker, director of dining services at Brookdale Plaza Lake Shore Drive, a Brookdale Senior Living community, has observed some differences in food preferences among the residents at her community.
“Some residents prefer comfort foods that they grew up with and made for their own families, while others eagerly anticipate the nightly and weekly chef’s specials,” says Baker. So the menu always includes classic dishes, while the creative specials might offer grilled beets with burrata and poppyseed vinaigrette or spiced salmon kebabs.
“As our culinary team has learned through the process of preparing meals for 300-plus residents, we may not please every palate with every single dish, but we strive to prepare nutritious, well-balanced meals every day,” Baker says. “Our residents are good-natured and playfully joke that they are more than happy not to cook or have to do the dishes.”
Dietitians give these healthy, varied menus their stamp of approval. “We see more and more discussions about the nutritional value of foods and the need to eliminate trans-fats and offer low-sodium options, which might be because there is more awareness in the medical field of the importance of eating healthy, and people want to be healthier in their lifestyles,” Aloise says.
In order to eliminate or lower the amount of salt in dishes, for example, Brookdale’s culinary staff has created six seasonings of herbs and spices to give a flavor boost to dishes. Brookdale menus are carefully monitored by dietitians and must receive their stamp of approval before being offered to the residents. Baker says the daily menu options promote heart health while still dishing up entrées with creative flare and chef-inspired creativity.
Special culinary events enhance mealtime. “Residents like their routine, but they also like it when we jazz things up,” Baker says. Brookdale celebrates world cuisine with dishes from a different culture once a month. Chefs regularly bring the action into the dining room by creating omelets to order and featuring Wine and Dine evenings that showcase creative dishes from around the globe.
At Senior Lifestyle residences, chefs might prepare flaming cherries jubilee or crepes Suzette in the dining room. “Residents eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in the same building, so we like to provide a wow factor,” Aloise says.
Mealtime in a retirement community can provide an antidote to the isolation that seniors might have experienced when they lived at home alone. It can be crucial for nourishing not only the body, but also the spirit.
“A lot of times people don’t think they’re ready for a retirement community, but most of the time those people are eating alone, they’re home alone, and they’re not really socializing the way they used to,” Aloise says. “But in a Senior Lifestyle retirement community, our residents can have that socialization and that camaraderie at mealtime or during happy hours, cooking demonstrations, lunch by the pool or a barbecue outside. It is our mission to create these exceptional dining experiences every day.
“I call it getting back to life.”