As people age, their nutritional needs remain the same, but a healthier diet has been shown to reduce the risks of many conditions common to older people, such as diabetes, bone loss and stroke. Eating well can help patients with existing conditions manage chronic conditions by keeping blood sugar steady, and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
Caloric needs change from person to person depending on age, sex, level of physical activity, and other factors. Finding the right balance of activity, nutrients, and calories can result in a longer life with more energy and fewer complications.
Great food choices have a remarkable effect on how the body works. The right amount of fiber and fluid can make digestion easy and comfortable, which will reduce bloating and lessen chances of constipation, gas, or other uncomfortable issues.
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
Aging means increased risk of heart disease, dementia, and chronic disease. It’s more difficult to recover from injury and falls are common. Healthy changes include reducing sodium and saturated fats, and adding antioxidant-rich foods, calcium, and fiber.
Herbs are surprisingly nutritious. Substitute fresh parsley, oregano, cilantro, basil, and other varieties for salt add flavor and nutritional value.
Organization and Planning
Meticulous planning can be tedious, but it’s a great way to keep costs down while taking advantage of seasonal produce and readily available supplies. Meals should be based on quality and nutrition, considering feedback from patients and insight from team members involved in all aspects of food service. Consult with your team’s dietitian during the planning stage to ensure the meals meet the health and regulatory needs of the patients and the facility.
One of the main goals of healthcare menu planning is cutting waste. In the past, few choices were offered and a lot of food landed in the trash, leaving diners undernourished, underfed. and unhappy. By eliminating foods your charges dislike and offering an array of choices, you allow people to make healthy choices they really want to eat.
Respecting their choices shows elderly residents they have a voice, and that the people charged with their care do care. Build in flexibility to tweak the menu as you go, adding more popular choices and cutting down on dishes that add nothing to the experience.
Addressing Multiple Dietary Issues
One of the most challenging aspects to menu planning for elderly residents is addressing dietary restrictions for people with multiple health conditions. An alarming percentage of elderly patients in long-term care facilities have nutritional deficiencies.
Get creative with the food by adding combination vegetable and fruit smoothies for picky eaters, offering tasty low-sugar cream pies made with yogurt or ricotta cheese and dressed up with colorful berries loaded with fiber and antioxidants. People who have trouble chewing or swallowing will appreciate the thought that goes into delicious soft treats and you’ll have the satisfaction of making sure they get the rainbow of vegetables and fruits they need to stay healthy.
Some residents will have delicate digestion issues. Nausea or other side effects from medications can be difficult to address. The patient may not want to eat at all, or may only agree to something inappropriate like banana pudding or chocolate milkshakes. Be ready with down-home favorites updated with nutrition supplements and healthier ingredients.
We live in such a richly diverse culture today that restricting your menu to one type of cuisine may prove a boring mistake. Consider the regional cuisines popular in the area where the facility is located and the age and various ethnicities of your residents. You may need to create healthier versions of old favorites, but nothing is more appealing than food you grew up with. Don’t underestimate the power of cooking smells. Stimulating the senses with memories of home of youth will also stimulate your diners’ appetites.
A Feast for the Eyes
Once you’ve detailed your new menu, consider presentation. A colorful display with an array of healthy choices, fresh fruit and vegetables, and aromatic hot foods will help your residents react positively to mealtime. Even unappetizing pureed meals can be presented in an attractive way. Butternut squash soup swirled with just a bit of creme fraiche and garnished with a sprig of fresh basil looks less like something an invalid is forced to eat and more like a gourmet entree.
Making the Change
Offering more choices, creative menus, and fresher foods may require an overhaul of your entire healthcare food service process from the way you order to the way you serve. It will be worth it. Excellent food and response to patient wants and needs makes everybody happy, including staff, patients, and patient families.
The VA Nutrition and Food Services made the switch, and the results have been dramatic and impressive. One of the most successful implementations of the new VA attitude towards food service can be found at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. The staff reports that less food is being discarded and patients are making far more healthy choices on their own when given choices they actually want to eat. The hospital has invested in new carts with cold and hot compartments and a serving station. Foodservice workers take the patient’s order and plate right on the spot, giving restaurant quality meals in a bedside setting as opposed to the old method of plating in a central kitchen far from patient floors and then delivering dozens of lukewarm, no-choice meals to an entire ward at once.
Even with a limited budget and a program mired in tradition, the VA foodservice has broken from the past to address a new, more savvy generation of baby boomer vets who are accustomed to a different lifestyle and a fresher outlook on institutional meals.
Bio: Sherry Gray is a freelance writer from Key West, FL. She writes about medical, science, college and business topics. Connect with Sherry on Twitter or LinkedIn.