Dining Plan Design Strategies for Senior Living Communities

Don Bundren

Don Bundren, food solution design and culinary director at Sodexo Seniors

On August 30, 2023, iAdvance Senior Care hosted a webinar titled “How to Design a Dining Plan That Works for Senior Living Communities.” The webinar, sponsored by Sodexo, was inspired by the positive response to an article we published in January, which featured Don Bundren, food solution design and culinary director at Sodexo Seniors. That article was iAdvance Senior Care’s most read article in January, and the third most read article in 2023.

Expanding on the topics covered in the article, Don Bundren joined us again as a presenter, along with Christy Turner, general manager, dining services at Garden Spot Village, and Steve Muller, chief operating officer at Garden Spot Village.

Here, we share their insights on how to design an effective dining plan for senior care communities and why finding the right partner is key.

The Importance of Dining Plan Customization

Bundren opened the webinar by discussing the importance of dining plan customization for senior living communities. He explained that many senior living communities have experienced census drops, and communities are renovating their dining facilities and creating development plans in an effort to attract new residents and rebuild census.

“Updating your dining program is an investment in attracting potential future residents,” he explained. “It creates a way [for residents] to engage in your community, and will make them want to move in. Core elements to a diverse dining engagement program are service style, regional and global culinary menus, engagement in social events, and technology and retail.” He noted that residents look for multiple dining environments, a challenge which senior care communities can potentially solve with convertible dining spaces.

Bundren also highlighted the importance of choosing a food service provider and designer that acknowledges and partners with the community’s vision. “Having a designer that understands a production kitchen, stations, and different styles of dining is really critical in understanding the right program that you want to move toward,” he said. Having the right food service provider is critical, as is involving the operations team, since they are highly knowledgeable about residents’ needs. He also encouraged senior care facilities to communicate milestones and decisions with current residents and staff to help keep them engaged.

Bundren explained that it’s also important to have resident engagement when installing technology. He encouraged communities to avoid over-designing and to invest in technology that makes sense for the community. “Robots are one of those shiny things that everyone’s talking about lately, and you really have to look at whether it makes sense in your dining room,” he said.

Developing Culinary Concepts

christy turner

Christy Turner, general manager, dining services at Garden Spot Village

Christy Turner began by speaking about the importance of food choice, noting that all residents have individual tastes and preferences. “Some of our residents have gluten allergies, lactose intolerance, and a variety of many other things,” she explained. She noted that when residents shop around for a community, they ask how communities are able to accommodate dietary restrictions. Additionally, some residents have strong ties to locally or regionally developed foods and flavor profiles. “And I still have residents who have a much more adventurous sense of taste,” she noted. “Some of them have been missionaries in other countries. Some of them have served in the service in other countries, and often they’ve been well-traveled. Through creation of culinary concepts and the use of those concepts, we are given the ability to help them explore those flavor profiles or even think fondly back to what might have been something they liked in the past.”

Turner explained that “brunch at lunch” is one of Garden Spot Village’s most popular concepts, since sometimes people simply want breakfast for lunch or dinner. She also noted that the purchase of a wok proved to be highly popular, and the line for made-to-order stir fry quickly grew so long that residents started requesting an additional wok.

She noted that the community offers residents plenty of food variety, having a meal like tacos once a month, or made-to-order pastas. Additionally, she described several resident engagement events. Thanks to a partnership with a local farm, the community buys fresh corn and green beans in the summer, and residents help to husk the corn.

Residents also help out cutting strawberries during Strawberry Week and cleaning peaches during Peach Week. “Every station has an item that features that ingredient,” explained Turner, “And [residents] can make strawberry pound cake and take it back with them for dessert. It is a hit, and we go through about 10 cases of strawberries per day.”

Turner discussed other culinary management elements, including the importance of proper table settings to help residents feel that they’re still in their homes. Careful thought goes into uniform selection, too. “We try to tailor our uniforms to our service style. Our harvest table is more of a bistro, and is a little more casual,” she said. “[Staff] don’t look as formal as they would in our formal dining room.” She explained that she makes sure that staff look the part that fits the particular area where they work.

Finding the Right Partner to Create a Dining Plan

steve muller

Steve Muller, chief operating officer at Garden Spot Village.

Steve Muller discussed how Garden Spot Village chose Sodexo as a partner, explaining that the community already had a vision for its dining space and had some existing relationships with Sodexo. “Once the vision was captured, then we really started to partner together to make what we have as our harvest table,” he explained. “I’ve had the privilege to work with Don and Christy for eight or nine years now, and because we understand each other, and we know what the goal is, that’s why it works.”

Muller recommends that senior care communities who are looking for a partner think about factors like who they can resonate with and who will be able to enact their vision. He noted that co-creation was important in bringing the vision for Garden Spot Village to life, and that the relationship was a collaborative one, rather than one where Garden Spot Village simply issued orders.

Muller encourages senior care communities to look for the foodies among their residents. “Keep your antenna up about who really loves food around here, who has some of that international experience, who would have dined in Europe or different places or in South America, and get perspectives from those folks, because that will inform a broader perspective than just what’s local,” he advises.

In creating a vision for the dining plan, Muller recommends thinking about not only what it will look like, but also what the space will feel like, sound like, and smell like. “What are we trying to create here?” he notes. “Then, you have to capture that. You need to start to translate that to the physical space and what it looks like.”

Just the Beginning

The webinar is an hour long and contains more advice and best practices than we can include here. You can view the recording or read the transcript of the webinar to learn even more, including the creative design elements that proved to be a success for Garden Spot Village, how the community attracts talented staff to its dining facilities, how they navigate challenging menu requests, and more.

Topics: Facility management , Featured Articles , Nutrition , Operations