Organic, local, unprocessed, and sustainable are among the many well-known mantras of the Green and Farm-to-Table movements over the past decade. Yet, the cultural shift toward healthy foods has still left a large and growing portion of our population untouched—older adults in senior living and health care.

How I Got Here

Prior to working in the health care industry, I worked in hospitality in a variety of settings, including corporate food service, hotels, and private residences to country clubs. I’ve had many different titles in the culinary industry—chef, executive chef, culinary administrator, evaluator, and educator.

In 2013, I joined The Goodman Group as national director of culinary operations, heading foodservice at the company’s multistate, 33 senior living and health care communities. I quickly became aware that the traditional approach in health care to food operations has been primarily clinical or institutional, rather than culinary.

The Goodman Group is family-owned and has an entrepreneurial outlook, and was looking to change the direction of culinary operations to fit with their mission statement of enabling residents to achieve an optimum level of well-being. This means not simply providing residents with three meals a day, but actually improving their quality of life through nutrition.

The Transformation Begins…

In early 2013, our Culinary Operations developed a new initiative, Food for Life, designed to enable us to transform the overall dining experience at our 33 communities. Our vision includes having residents experience the greatest health gains achievable through culinary means. Embracing culinary perspective and discipline as integral to providing excellent care is a relatively new concept. As a health care organization, we found that healthy food choices can favorably alter the course of health and disease, enhance the quality of life, and even reduce or eliminate the need for some medications.

In the past two years, we’ve taken on the opportunity of providing a wide variety of whole, minimally processed foods and maximizing nutritional value, flavor, and presentation. I’d call it a culinary revolution.

…And It Starts With The Chefs

So how does this process, this shift in thought about menu development and food offerings begin? First and foremost, it begins with education. It begins with each and every chef and dining director at each property. As a former dean of culinary at the Culinary Institute of Michigan, I saw many students deciding to apply their skills and knowledge in the growing health care industry.

The health care industry will only be as strong as the people involved. We need more chefs with a passion for driving healthier, high-quality food options for our seniors. It is paramount that we also attract more culinary talent from other fields with food knowledge and experience to our industry. I think we can elevate the food operations across the country, but first we need the right people.

The Food for Life initiative relies not only on getting the right chefs into our kitchens, but training them on our 14 standards and ultimately working with them to develop menus and plating standards.

Go Healthy, But Make It Tasty

To guide the recipe and menu options at our communities, we have developed and implemented 14 goals structured around offering more plant-based nutrition and doing away with pre-processed foods completely. Essentially, this means tackling the same challenges a new restaurant would bring, though in this case, the scope is regional.

With 33 properties extending from Washington to Florida, we also seek to customize our food offerings to address regional preferences specific to each area. We want to be sure residents feel empowered in their food choices, but also that we introduce them to new, healthy alternatives to classic favorites.

By taking their old favorites, things they grew up with, we look at the recipe and modify it to be a healthier version with all the flavor they love and crave. That’s where having a broad culinary arts background becomes essential—cutting the fat here, tweaking and modifying ingredients or seasonings—and it’s the part that makes a chef’s career in health care tremendously fulfilling.

At times, dishes the residents prefer and what is healthy for them are not the same thing, so we introduce new foods to both residents and their families through educational classes, workshops, and events. We offer menu and recipe ideas as samples and ask for feedback. The responses from families have been overwhelmingly positive. Families appreciate that each of our communities purchases local, in-season organic food through our vendor network and local growers and farmers.

A Good Presentation Stimulates Appetites

Our standards for health care dining are parallel to those in the culinary field and restaurant industry. We strive to incorporate all the elements of a great plate, including texture, balance, color, flavors, taste, and aroma.

At times in a health care setting, medications and swallowing issues can make it unsafe or uncomfortable for a resident to be served a regular diet. Taking the culinary approach, we work with color, presentation, and the use of fresh herbs and spices to take special restricted diets from bland to appetizing. Everyone “eats with their eyes,” so the food has to look and taste appealing.

On modified diets, along with flavor, we like to keep the food’s texture. For someone on a special diet who was used to chewing and swallowing food, it can be difficult. We want to try to keep the dish as close to the real thing as possible to stimulate the appetite by putting out a high-quality meal. In our memory care units this is especially important, as caregivers help residents identify the dish and encourage eating and enjoyment.

Whether our residents live at independent, assisted, or skilled nursing facilities, all deserve nutritionally strong, high-quality food choices.

For many years, food has been considered secondary to excellent care, but it needs to become the first and foremost concern in every health care facility. Everything we’ve rolled out in our communities has led us to believe that this is the best option.

Everything that comes from our kitchens is good for you. The Goodman Group has gone full force with the initiative, and the results have been quite miraculous. Bringing the “green culinary movement” into the heart of the kitchens of senior living and health care communities is a huge cultural shift.
Chef Robert (Robb) White is national director of culinary operations, The Goodman Group, and recipient of a 2014 Cutting Edge Award from the American Culinary Federation.