Gourmet restaurants know the tricks to increase the sensory appeal of meals – attractive plates, fanciful garnishes and a dollop of whimsy served in a beautiful setting. These touches are often overlooked in the senior living setting, where the staff deal with high food costs, small budgets and a variety of special diets. However, offering meals that are visually stimulating and served in a comforting environment goes a long way in ensuring that your residents will have a positive dining experience.
According to Dr. Lisa Duizer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph and Research Scientist with Agri-Food for Healthy Aging, “sensory properties are one of the top three determinants of food preferences for the elderly, followed by familiarity and tradition.”
For older adults, physiological changes can lead to issues when eating certain foods, so any modifications to the food or the eating environment have to be made with the senior living population in mind. Dr. Duizer says “texture perception changes as we age. Our muscles get weaker, which can affect our ability to chew and swallow, as can wearing dentures. Plus, by age 80, we see a significant decline in olfactory ability. This reduced sense of smell means that older adults struggle with regard to detecting flavours as well as tastes.”
Increasing Sensory Pleasure
Since every individual has varying degrees of ability to detect flavours, it’s difficult to please every palate with one common meal. To combat this conundrum, Dr. Duizer suggests providing an assortment of tabletop condiments for people to choose from, such as herbs, spices and sauces. These taste enhancers allow residents to personalize their meals to suit their own preferences.
Using an array of colours, textures and attractive garnishes can heighten the appeal of foods. Dr. Duizer says “how the food looks has an effect on our desire to want to start eating. You have to put yourself in the residents’ shoes. If you like it and want to eat it, they probably will too.” Since the sense of smell is more prone to losses than the sense of taste, it’s also important to try and enhance the olfactory properties of food. A stronger odour can be achieved by serving foods warm or hot.
The Dining Environment
The sensory aspects of food are just one part of the eating experience. Another important aspect is the social setting. Studies indicate that adults who eat with others tend to consume more food than those who eat alone.
It’s important for older adults to have consistency and stability in the dining experience – the home is their home and the peers they dine with are like family. Imagine coming home and finding a group of strangers at your own dinner table – that would be a stressful meal! Ensure that residents can have a consistent table of 4-5 people. To add appeal to the setting, use tablecloths, nice dinnerware and add a vase with flowers – these simple touches can promote a nicer eating environment and make people feel good about mealtime.
Enhancing the dining experience in senior living can go a long way in mealtime enjoyment. Create a setting that you would feel happy and satisfied eating in, and your residents will appreciate your efforts.