Meeting Consumer Expectations for Nutrition in Aged Care
With recent media exposure and the current investigation with the Royal Commission into Aged Care in Australia, meals provided in residential aged care facilities have received a lot of negative criticism. While the intention is likely never to give our residents poor quality food, the practical reality of providing meals in this setting can result in less than satisfactory meals.
According to Ian Yates, CE of COTA Australia, quality is a consumer-driven perspective. Our challenge now is to meet the expectations of our consumers for food and nutrition, and not merely to meet Quality Standards.
100% meal satisfaction is an unrealistic target due to the subjective nature of taste preferences and a menu that must cater for a large number of residents. However it is essential that the residents meal and taste preferences are included in the design of a menu.
In my experience as an aged care specialist dietitian, factors that improve meal satisfaction in an aged care facility are:
1. A menu that is designed and developed for the residents, in consultation with the residents. This can be done in formal meetings such as having a catering specific meeting with residents and their family members/representatives, along with the chef and facility manager. Informal ways to gather this information can be through verbal conversation, for example during cooking sessions for lifestyle activities or directly to nursing or care staff. Consumer satisfaction/ feedback forms can be an anonymous format for residents to provide feedback on the meal quality or for their taste preferences.
2. Obtaining information on residents’ dietary preferences on admission, relating to their cultural background, social history and medical conditions. For example, if a new resident was a farmer and preferred his main meal to be a simple ‘3 meat and veg’ meal. Or they may be from Italian descent and prefer a hot pasta meal at lunch time with a side salad.
3. Having streamlined catering processes that ensure the meals provided are at the correct temperature (for example, soup that is hot at dinner, milk on cereal that is cold for breakfast). Meals that have been in ‘hot hold’ for too long lose their flavour, appearance, texture and nutritional quality so ensuring that catering processes maximise the food quality provided is a non-negotiable.
4. Staff who are knowledgeable about the meals provided, who are trained in the safe assistance of providing food to residents, and who are genuinely engaged with the residents during meal times to create a social and pleasant mealtime environment.
5. Employing qualified chefs who have passion for the aged care industry, pride in their role, and an understanding that they are essentially creating high nutritional quality food that tastes delicious!
It is our privilege and our responsibility to provide high quality, tasty, texturally-appropriate and nutritious meals for our aged care residents. We need to ask ourselves at every meal service – is this a meal that I would be happy to serve my own parent/ grandparent/ relative? But what is more important is asking the residents how we can better meet their expectations around meal services? Catering in aged care the way we have always done it is no longer the accepted norm for our consumers. It's time for us all to reassess our food service in aged care and establish new higher standards to provide food that our residents expect, but most importantly that they deserve.