Menu planning in Aged Care is a complex process that takes into consideration many variables: residents’ background, their likes, dislikes, nutritional and dietary requirements. Other aspects include the food philosophy of the facility, budgetary parameters, staff skills and kitchen equipment.
Assessment of a menu by a nutritionist and a dietician is an important part of the process as it ensures the menu is nutritionally adequate and caters to all the possible dietary requirements.
Eugene Van Wyk, Head Chef at Bushland Health in Taree NSW, and Peter Paus, Head Chef of Life Care in South Australia, discuss the role of nutritionist and dietician in Aged Care and highlight some of the challenges to deliver menus that are loved by residents and are nutritionally balanced.
Peter Paus designs menus, which are rolled out across 5 sites. With years of experience behind him and understanding the fine balance of Aged Care menu planning, he is now able to create menus that get approved by a nutritionist with little or no changes.
Over the last 6 years, Eugene Van Wyk has created an almost seamless process of delivering nutritious, delicious and healthy meals that are loved by residents.
So what is their recipe for success?
Both Peter and Eugene agree that the starting point in any menu planning is finding out their residents’ likes and dislikes, what foods they like to eat and what they dislike. Then using those findings and the understanding of nutritional requirements, they create a menu that incorporates residents’ favourite meals with the required quantity of key nutrients, such as protein, dietary fiber and calcium.
Peter says the process for having his menus reviewed is rigorous. The nutritionist will break down the components of each meal to see how often certain foods are served to make sure there is enough variety and food groups that tick all the nutritional boxes. It is a thorough process that can take up to two weeks before he is given feedback and is able to make adjustments.
“I’ve learnt to start planning a lot earlier now I understand how long it can take.”
Both Peter and Eugene will go out of their way to satisfy their residents, even if it means preparing a specific meal for someone on occasion.
They also continue to experiment and try new things and there is room on the menu to do that. Peter recently tried Spiced Rosewater Apples and Red Wine Poached Pears, which got the seal of approval from the nutritionist, the dieticians and the residents at all the 5 sites.
In addition to satisfying the nutritional requirements, both Chefs will also work closely with a dietician, relatives and staff when new residents join a facility. They work together to ensure an optimal diet is developed for each resident and all considerations are incorporated. Menus are adjusted accordingly each time.
Peter and Eugene both acknowledge there can be a difference between what happens day-to-day in an Aged Care facility. An expert nutritionist or dietician’s feedback is always well intentioned, but can sometimes be disconnected from the challenges faced by an Aged Care Chef.
Dieticians and nutritionists will generally focus on making sure there is enough variety and flavour on the menu. Some will try and suggest foods that are common fare on a restaurant menu.
Trendy ingredients such as quinoa and chia seeds can appear in the recommendations from the dieticians but they don’t often translate well onto an Aged Care menu, simply because elderly people usually prefer classic, well-cooked foods that they are familiar with.
Eugene says they will try their best to include a variety foods in every menu. Sometimes it is a case of “convenient naming”. For example, he might name a dish “beef stew”, when in fact it is Mongolian Curry, or Beef Bourguignon. Because he knows his residents will happily tuck into a dish named ‘beef stew’ even though it is a curry, he is still able to covertly maintain a good level of variety on his menu.
Peter says he also tries to keep the names of dishes familiar so his residents recognise them, but he will alter the ingredients to make sure he has the variety required by the nutritionist.
Generally the working relationship between Chefs and nutritionists and dieticians is a productive one. The Chefs know there are certain guidelines to be met but at the same time, they know that if their residents are served good food that they love to eat, then they are more likely to eat well and maintain a healthy weight, which at the end of the day is what is important, keeping the elderly healthy.