Senior Dining

Special events have been a huge resident satisfaction driver. This one is a pea snapping demonstration. 

Senior dining reboot

An independent senior living facility in Georgia turns dining services into a channel for food autonomy and community building.

Palmetto Park Senior Living Community, located south of Atlanta, made sweeping changes to its menu and added a laundry list of services that address the needs of their residents and encourage community involvement.

When Joshua Watkins became the director two years ago, his goal was to replace “assembly line foodservice” with scratch-made options made from whole-food ingredients. The department overhauled the daily menus, organized events, put lighter fare options in place, improved staff training and prioritized residents’ feedback.

Watkins, who started as a dishwasher at Palmetto Park when he was a junior in high school, started by working with their supplier to source more whole meats, vegetables and fruits. 

Then the staff switched the menu from quarterly menus on a four-week cycle to a year-round menu on an eight-week cycle. The longer rotation gives residents more variety, Watkins says. 

But the daily menus also feature more upscale, restaurant-inspired preparations designed to reflect residents’ preferences. For example, they’ve replaced steak, mashed potatoes and green beans with a choice of filet mignon or salmon served alongside a baked potato and grilled vegetables. On Sundays, residents eat homestyle foods familiar to those who grew up in the South, such as a spread of turkey breast with gravy, sliced ham, cornbread dressing and fried okra. 

Watkins and his staff also provide flexible meal options. The dining room features a salad bar with 10 to 12 different toppings; residents construct their own salads and eat them in the dining room or take them to go. The program is running a soup-of-the-day trial, serving a scratch-made soup at either lunch or dinner several days a week, which cuts waste by using extra ingredients to make soups, stews and chilis as well as providing residents with a lighter dining option. Residents serve themselves baked goods from a bagel bar at breakfast. All full meals are available as to-go orders if residents call ahead.

The driving idea behind the changes is to grant as much food autonomy to residents as possible.

“It makes it easier on residents to have more options,” Watkins says. “We want them to be more independent. We want to provide them with as many options as we can while still giving them a nutritious meal.”

The staff organizes monthly theme-based dining events as a vehicle for community building, including a Cinco de Mayo celebration, a luau and a fall festival. They also hold special yearly events, such as a Grandparents’ Day buffet. It’s typical for 98 percent of residents to attend the special events. 

Watkins sees the celebrations as a way to affirm the dignity of Palmetto Park residents. 

Moving to more scratch-made foods has been one of director Joshua Watkins’ biggest pushes.

“I wanted to bring these big celebrations in that the residents could take part in, to give back to them for all that they’ve done,” he explains.

Overall satisfaction is high. Five years ago, it was typical for the department to receive 10 complaints a month. Today, the staff fields more compliments than complaints; last month, they received a record 80 positive comments.

About 100 residents live at Palmetto Park and the department serves about 215 meals every day out of a small commercial kitchen. Lunch is their busiest meal. Family members sometimes join residents for dinner, and in the past two years, the guest count has been climbing steadily.

Watkins and his staff achieved these changes in short order by zeroing in on areas of the budget where they can save money, such as the switch to scratch cooking and by prioritizing staff teamwork and training. Watkins hired one new cook when he took the director’s position and continues to provide monthly hands-on training for employees.

In June, the Nutrition & Foodservice Education Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals (ANFP), recognized Watkins and his staff at its awards ceremony in Indianapolis. The dining staff was chosen out of more than a dozen contenders as Foodservice Department of the Year in the award’s inaugural year. Watkins himself received the Excellence in Dining Award.

The staff has plans to launch quarterly luncheons for emergency first responders, implement periodic open-air dining and cooking competitions and to provide a coffee cart with smoothies and pastries available at an extra cost between meals.

They plan to continue with innovative programming that’s already in place, such as live cooking demonstrations, a bean-snapping event, video dietary tutorials, recipe swaps and a menu discussion panel. And they will continue serving seniors meals from their successful menu. 

“We try to feed our seniors as though they’re our family members,” Watkins says. “We thrive because we love our residents.”

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