By Trisha Kostis

Almost without exception, all senior living communities have their clique of Ruth Reichl wannabes whose often vociferous criticism of the dining experience can harpoon staff morale and poison the dining atmosphere for other residents. Experience and data tell us that it is often a myriad of other life circumstances that impact these residents and compel them to target and obsess about food. We should look to other departments for assistance in an attempt to distract from chronic complaints that are not rooted in legitimate or solvable problems. Here are some suggestions on how the whole team can achieve the goal of indirectly satisfying resident concerns about dining.

  1. Invite dissatisfied residents to a special meeting with the Chef, the Executive Director, and the Activities or Fitness Director. Ask them to share their own recipes. If they are not able to provide them (which is often the case), ask them to describe what they like in particular about the dish and what about that particular meal is memorable. Have the Chef write a recipe to match their description and let the resident review and comment. Put their dish on the menu and, with their approval, name it after them.
  2. With the Activities Directors, plan events specifically centered on cooking. Have residents lead a special cooking class with the assistance of the Chef and Activities Director. Allow them to select the dish or the topic and create an event around it. Design a personal invitation and reach out to the most dissatisfied residents and family members. This could be a monthly series with a featured resident and marketed as “Cooking with (resident’s name)”.
  3.  If possible, plan a “field trip” behind the mysterious doors of the kitchen. Make sure your kitchen is safe, (perfect I’m sure it always is!) and your staff in top form, but also allow the realities of a typical day to be observable. For example, if you have a tiny cooktop that can only grill five hamburgers at a time, point out to your visitors how challenging it is to prepare 15 burgers cooked well done and served within a ten-minute window. Allow them to see how hard the cooks work when they have 30 tickets lined up and a resident requests something off-menu. Let them watch the dishwasher sweating to make sure clean dishes are ready to go when a table turns. They should see the servers running in and out of the kitchen trying to make milkshakes or Arnold Palmers for a table of six at 5:30 p.m. If having a small group of residents in your kitchen during service is too unsafe, make a video of a typically busy dinner service and show it during a Dining Committee meeting.
  4. The Activity department is the secret weapon. Residents who are focused and obsessed with overcooked/undercooked veggies, “cold” food, portion sizes, and other recurring complaints that plague all senior communities need something else to focus on. If you have a fitness program in your community, have the Fitness Director assign these residents a nutrition project – a challenge. Create a form for “nutritional goals” that they can complete with each meal. For example, if they are diabetic, they might record what they ate at each meal that complies with a diabetic diet. Those who are on low sodium and even those who are gluten-free could also record their progress. Have them return the results to the Fitness Director and those residents who achieved their goals for the month could get a special prize.
  5.  Activities staff can do monthly events that focus on the health benefits of a particular dish that is featured that month, examining the nutritional advantages or how your community prepares it to make it healthy. Comparing traditional methods of preparing a dish (example: deep-fried chicken) with a more modern and healthier approach (air frying or baking) could go a long way toward educating those residents who don’t understand why the food being served in their new home tastes so different from what they once ate at home.
  6.  The Chef should have a small “apology plate” ready at all times. When things go sideways, as they will, and a resident has been given the wrong meal or has waited longer than usual to be served, a small appetizer plate should be brought out, with a sincere expression of apology from either the Chef or the Dining Room Supervisor. It could simply be a mini charcuterie assortment or cheese and fruit. The idea here is to let the resident know their unhappiness has been noticed and addressed.

It’s always a challenge to confront those seemingly impossible to please residents but approaching from a different perspective might help divert the focus and minimize the stress on all.