Sweet Spots of Senior Nutrition

To plan the menus for the more than 300 communities at Holiday Retirement, my colleague Rebecca McCullough, director of nutrition health and wellness, spent a lot of time making site visits. She talked to countless residents and their families about what would be the perfectly balanced menu, which is healthy without sacrificing being sufficiently exciting. When you have such a big family, some residents swear by tofu stir fry while others aren’t sure it really counts as food.

Rebecca learned one thing the hard way. She tried to take some of the traditional desserts off the menu, replacing them with healthier and sugar free options. The feedback was immediate: bring back the traditional cakes and pies—or else. They went right back on the menu, of course. The point? We all want what is best for our older loved ones, but we must balance that with their right to choose and be as independent as possible, which is no easy feat.

Offering variety is key to this balance. If residents want to occasionally -- or regularly -- eat beer-battered catfish and fried chicken with sides of mashed potatoes, they can and we can only gently nudge so much. Alternatively, if they want or need low-sodium, low-fat and gluten free options, they’ll find those readily and easily. And there’s a sweet spot in the middle. Our chefs might serve up a traditional option, such as meatloaf, but they’ll balance it with, say, sides of green vegetables and whole grains.

If one isn’t careful, communal dining can get clinical and institutional very quickly, which is why we focus on offering hospitality rather than healthcare. From the way we present our food to the ways that we combine our menus with what we call Adventure Travel -- our take on armchair travel -- we craft our menus in a holistic way.

International flavor

When a French chef arrived at one of our communities in Florida, there was some initial anxiety among our residents about whether they would understand his accent. But then we had a program, which brought the chef out of the kitchen to talk about his native country with residents, and to cook French cuisine for them with which he’d grown up.

Residents got to know him better, and he got to share his creations with residents. In short, he got to host, and our residents got to experience a little piece of the romance associated with the so-called country of love. The event was so successful that several of the French dishes the chef prepared became regular menu staples.

By associating food with all sorts of events, talks -- say a representative from a nation’s embassy coming to talk about current events in his or her country -- and other programs like the Adventure Travel program, it helps provide context to food experiences. And that makes eating more social and more fun.

Creating texture

Some seniors can struggle with swallowing, which means they need to eat pureed food, which has the sort of consistency of something that has been run through the blender. The result looks and feels like mashed potatoes.

Traditionally, pureed food is served in an unappetizing manner, which is typically described as “three scoops on a plate.” But we eat with our eyes, and visual presentation impacts our eating experience. So, in our assisted living communities, we mold and sculpt the pureed food we serve into the shape the food ought to look like. So, when we serve chicken breast, our chefs will form the shape of a chicken breast with the pureed chicken, and they’ll even add grill marks. They pipe macaroni and cheese out of a pastry bag to make it look like spirals or shells, and they do the same for broccoli and green beans.

That attention to details makes the difference between eating a scoop and eating chicken.

Healthy Choices

As a registered dietitian, Rebecca follows new research in the field and is always looking for foods that can improve residents’ health. She also relies on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, part of health.gov, and upon choosemyplate.gov.

For example, certain foods help boost memory, which can delay or decrease Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. But those aren’t always scalable across 300 senior living communities, as is the case for a particular kind of mushroom such as Lion’s mane, which research has associated with memory boosting. But supplying that mushroom to so many communities isn’t possible, so we have to choose more traditional brain foods, such as walnuts and blueberries.

At Holiday Retirement, we provide gluten friendly options, as well as food that those with diabetes or heart problems can eat. Our residents often bring copies of our menus to their health providers to look over and strategize about what they can eat.

To that end, we’ve also simplified our menus to include a single logo -- we settled on a flower -- to signify healthy choices. We’ve seen menus elsewhere that can confuse diners with dozens upon dozens of different icons that signify a variety of things. When, say, 80-year-olds need to keep turning back to the key to figure out what each tiny symbol represents, we find that they can get rather confused and frustrated. Our simple and streamlined menus, we feel, help people make healthier choices, if that’s what they want to do.

But try as we might to sneak whole grains in there, and to decrease sodium and saturated fat by skipping or altering a step in the preparation, sometimes a resident just takes a look at that piece of cake, notes that he or she shouldn’t be eating it, and then eats it anyway. And that’s just fine. They have made the choice and they have preserved their independence.

For even more on “inside the kitchen” at Holiday Retirement and eating well for an active, healthy retirement, visit holidaytouch.com/life-at-holiday/inside-the-kitchen/home-cooking.

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