We’re a culture obsessed with food, and our interest in eating well doesn’t stop when we move to senior communities. As part of a recent survey I did with a group of women who’ve been through the experience of finding care for their parents, I asked what other people going through the process should know. Not surprisingly, many of their suggestions centered on assisted-living community menus, mealtimes, and dining. Here are some specific questions they recommend you ask before choosing a community.
Who decides what’s on the menu?
The first thing to ask is who is in charge of selecting menu items. Ideally, the community will have a registered dietitian and a chef to select and prepare meals that are nutritionally balanced and delicious. Ask to see the current menu, and find out how far in advance menus are planned.
Are there alternatives for special diets and particular palates?
While you’re discussing menus, ask if residents can request alternatives to meals they don’t care for. If your parents follow a special diet, ask if the kitchen can accommodate their needs with a variety of dishes. This is critical if your parents need to follow a low-sodium, allergen-free, or diabetic-friendly diet. It’s also important to those who keep kosher, eat halal foods, or follow a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. If you get any sense that the kitchen will struggle to meet your parents’ needs, keep looking.
What about snacks?
Snacks are part of the monthly menu package in some communities but not others. If snacks are provided, find out what they are and when they’re available. Some communities have on-site cafes and shops where residents can buy snacks, too.
How frequently do the menus change?
Too-frequent repetition can make even delicious meals seem dull, while menus that change with the seasons can add interest and variety. Ask how often the menus are changed, how often particular meals are repeated, and whether seasonal produce is part of the menu plan.
When are meals served? Are mealtimes flexible or fixed?
Routines help structure our time, but schedules that are too strict can conflict with some of the perks of retirement like sleeping in and the occasional nap. Find out exactly when your parents can expect to eat each meal, and whether there’s flexibility in mealtimes. For example, breakfast may be a buffet-style meal with diners arriving when they’re ready, but dinner may be a sit-down meal at a particular time to encourage socializing.
Does the community offer regular restaurant outings?
Even with a great kitchen and fresh menus, residents will want to get out and try new places, visit longtime favorites, and socialize over food away from home. Talk to the community social director to find out if there are regular excursions to restaurants and cafes in the area.
What does the food taste like?
This is the ultimate question, and one that you and your parents can best answer by stopping by for a few meals. Eating with residents and their guests in the dining room will show you what the selections, portion sizes, social atmosphere, and service are like.
Eating well is one of life’s joys, and eating well consistently is one of the keys to good nutrition and health. By asking lots of questions about prospective communities’ menus and meal service, you can help your parents find a place they’ll enjoy each day. Learn more about fine dining options in senior communities and healthy eating for seniors on the SeniorAdvisor.com blog.