Cooking shows and contests are all the rage lately. From the popular Great British Bake Off, to Top Chef, to Chopped, we seem to love watching people cook, especially when there’s an element of friendly competition involved! Recently, a leader in the senior living industry decided to get in on the action and showcase the culinary expertise of some of their most talented chefs — a contest that emphasized the importance of the food and dining experience at senior living communities.
Award-winning senior living chefs
Life Care Services (LCS), which operates 140 senior living communities (including continuing care retirement communities [CCRCs, also called life plan communities]), is the nation’s second largest senior living rental community management company. The organization also offers senior living support services like community design and development, risk management, and group purchasing.
This summer, LCS hosted their annual “Chef of the Year” competition, a cookoff-style contest among the organization’s executive chefs. Held in the Sysco Test Kitchens in Houston, Texas, and live-streamed for LCS residents and staff to enjoy, the friendly competition allowed the chefs to show off their hospitality and culinary talents.
The competition was narrowed down to five finalists before naming the champion for 2022. The winner was Chef Mike Prager, the director of culinary services at Clarendale of Algonquin, an LCS rental CCRC in Algonquin, Illinois, where Prager is renowned for preparing delicious and healthy meals.
Chef Prager’s award-winning dish was his now-famous Mardi Gras mustard crusted bass, five-spice lentil risotto, squash and pear hash, lemongrass beurre blanc, Thai basil oil, and black garlic toasted almonds. You can watch Chef Prager’s winning moment here.
>> Related: 5-Stars: Dining Options Evolve at Many CCRCs
A few “hot” senior living food and dining trends
The Senior Dining Association, an organization dedicated to dining and hospitality in the senior living industry, recently highlighted some of the popular trends they are seeing in senior living dining.
It doesn’t get much fresher than homegrown! Some senior living communities are growing their own produce and herbs in on-site gardens. Community gardens, where residents can enjoy tending plants in their own personal plot, are another popular trend.
Staffing has been a challenge across many industries, and some senior living communities are turning to a high-tech solution: robots that can bring food from the kitchen to tables and then take empty dishes away. Some robots can even do deliveries to people’s residences.
Enhanced room service
To this point, some communities also are improving their room service offering, providing the option of in-room breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner like you might enjoy in a hotel.
Point of sale (POS) systems and cloud-based dining applications allow community operators to better manage rotating menus, keep track of residents’ details like food preferences, nutrition information, and monthly billing, and enable meal ordering.
Meal catering options
Some communities have increased catering options for independent living residents so they can enjoy small gatherings of 4 to 6 people in their own residences.
Sous vide is when vacuum-sealed food is cooked in temperature-controlled water baths, which results in improved freshness, consistency, flavor, and texture. This approach lets communities manage quantities and menu variety on menus. It also requires less labor and creates less food waste.
Plant-based protein is increasingly popular for both health and environmental reasons. It’s a good option for a so-called “flexitarian diet,” which involves eating a mostly plant-based diet (fruit, veggies, whole grains, nuts, etc.) but occasionally eating meat.
A variety of types of mushrooms (such as portobellos) are increasingly popular in part because of their nutrients, flavor, and hearty meat-like texture — without the calories, fat, and cholesterol that can come with meat.
It’s all about food, dining options
Competitions like the LCS Chef of the Year and these food/dining trends are just a few examples of the ways CCRCs and other senior living communities are evolving and upping their game when it comes to menus and the overall dining experience. This push for improvement and change comes directly from the people most impacted: the residents.
Today’s senior living resident will no longer settle for bland, pre-packaged, mass-produced food — the type of meal you might associate with a hospital stay or a cafeteria. Nor are residents content with poorly lit, uncomfortable, sterile-feeling dining settings.
More and more, senior living residents are demanding meals that feature not only a variety of menu selections to choose from but also fresh, high-quality ingredients (like organics and locally grown foods), robust flavors, and an appetizing presentation. In addition, they expect dining venues that vary in food selection and formality — options like grab-and-go cafes, coffee and smoothie shops, casual pub-like spots, and more formal bistro-like settings.
Good food and enjoyable mealtimes with friends or family are key focal points of many people’s day, regardless of their age. To attract and retain residents, CCRCs and other senior living communities must continue to evolve with their dining and menu options to meet the expectations of today’s seniors and also prepare for the food and dining trends of tomorrow.
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