Grilled swordfish in a lemon butter dill sauce. Stuffed chicken breast in a cranberry cream sauce with squash casserole. Spinach salad with pears, craisins, and blue cheese crumbles.
It could be the menu at your local fine-dining establishment — but it’s not. It’s what’s on the menu this week at The Arbors.
Surprised? You’re not alone. Many seniors and their loved ones think assisted living food is like hospital food — frozen, processed food served on plastic cafeteria trays. And that’s because for many years it was.
Assisted living dining programs used to be just a line item on the budget. Salt and spices were used in moderation. Food was often overcooked. Fresh foods were overlooked to keep costs down.
But today, assisted living dining isn’t just about food anymore. “It’s all about creating an experience for the residents,” says Bob Coffman, Food Services Director at The Arbors at Dracut.
Food is emotional. For many residents, getting to choose what and when they eat are some of the few choices that they will make on their own each day. And for those who were accustomed to eating alone before moving into assisted living, the dining room is the hub of social life in assisted living.
For families of residents, knowing that their loved ones are being served flavorful, nourishing menu items makes them feel better about making the move to assisted living.
Chances are that if you are reading this article, you’re interested in what The Arbors has to offer from a dining perspective. Let’s take a look.
Food for All Taste Buds
No two residents are alike. Some prefer salty; others sweet. Some like to sink their teeth into a juicy steak; others prefer tofu. Some are on medications and need special accommodations; others need a more balanced diet.
So, one of the first things that happens when a resident moves into an Arbors’ community is they meet with the Food Services Director.
“Knowing what the residents like and don’t like for food choices really comes down to getting to know who they are,” Coffman says. “Anytime a new resident moves in, I take the time to sit down and talk with them about what they like and don’t like. I really individualize the meals to each resident the best I can.”
Rather than the cookie-cutter offerings other assisted living facilities have, The Arbors’ allows and encourages residents to customize their meals. By reinforcing choice — a value important to seniors — residents exercise their independence by selecting their meal options from the menu, just as they would in any restaurant.
“We also have a dining staff that is compassionate to all of the residents and knows their dietary needs and restrictions,” says Bianca Syriac, Marketing Director at The Ivy at Ellington.
The Food Services Directors at The Arbors’ communities collaborate with a registered dietician to develop the menu. Using the freshest ingredients available, including many locally sourced, seasonal items, the chefs cook up crab cakes and grilled swordfish in the spring and summer and meatloaf and beef wellington in the fall and winter.
For the Food Services Directors at The Arbors, cooking is more than just fixing a plate of food. Many, like Coffman, are top chefs from country clubs, the hotel industry, and restaurants.
“I learned from some of the best cooks in Europe,” he says.
That’s why the assisted living dining experience feels more like eating in a restaurant than in a school cafeteria.
“I try and cook something new any chance I get,” Coffman says. “It’s how I stay creative and keep the residents happy with new and exciting choices.”
At The Ivy at Ellington, residents are able to choose when they eat, too. Instead of waiting until 8 a.m. for breakfast, noon for lunch, or 5 p.m. for dinner, they can eat throughout the day.
“Residents can just come in and order food any time during the day,” says Lindsay Redin, Executive Director at The Ivy at Ellington. “It’s very geared toward a restaurant-style experience. The residents have the ability to come in at their leisure.”
The Hub of Social Life
When you step into the dining room at an Arbors community, you’ll smell turkey roasting in the oven, onions caramelizing on the stove, and fresh herbs being chopped. You’ll see residents calling out to one another, sometimes stopping to check in with a friend before sitting down. And you’ll hear polite conversations and jovial banter filling the room as residents share the latest news on families, argue politics, and discuss the weather.
At The Arbors, sitting down and eating a meal is much more than just chewing food — it’s a time to socialize with others and enjoy each bite.
“The atmosphere of the dining room at The Ivy is very lively,” Redin says.
Dining room rituals — from mealtime to tablemates to serving staff — help new residents transition into the assisted living setting and assimilate into the established community.
“Eating in the dining room and socializing with peers helps residents create friendships,” Syriac says. “This not only helps create a sense of purpose for the resident but also lowers their anxiety.”
Food as Entertainment
Many assisted living dining programs bring the kitchen into the dining room with cooking demonstrations and baking classes.
The Ivy at Ellington recently hosted an event the pub where the Food Service Director talked to the residents about their favorite recipes and planned upcoming menus around their input. A resident shared memories about a salmon dish that he used to cook for his wife, and it was put it on the next week’s menu.
“Everyone loves being able to sample a resident’s family recipe,” Redin says. “They were licking their plates clean. There’s something about that that makes you feel good.”
At The Arbors at Dracut, Dietary Aid, Gale Boyze, and Activities Director. Judi Parisi, offer a baking class for the residents once a month. During the class, the residents watch Gale mix the ingredients into the bowl and she explains what ingredient she’s using and each step of the directions. After the treat is done baking, the residents enjoy it fresh out of the oven and chat with each other over a cup of coffee.
“The residents just love inviting their friends down to The Pub to enjoy the treat with them,” Boyze says.
If assisted living dining options are important to you and your loved one, request more information from The Arbors community nearest you.