If your dining room was a restaurant, would your residents eat there?

Tasty delicious food in residential aged careWhen I visit residential aged care facilities, it doesn’t take long to get the feel for a place, as I have mentioned before here and here.  The same is true in the dining room – it is often reflective of the organisational culture.  Interestingly, dining rooms can have their own sub-culture and differ between dining rooms even within the same facility.

Our starting point when reviewing a facility’s meal service is to sit and eat with residents in the dining rooms for up to a week.  I get to see things from their perspective and immerse in their dining room culture.  For some residents, meal time is a task – come, eat, leave. There is little conversation, little interaction with staff, rare immersion in eye-popping colourful, gorgeously presented meals with mouth-watering smells and descriptors.

What do the residents actually want, and what do management imagine they are actually providing? 

What residents want: Consistently hot, tasty, nicely presented favourites that are not murdered by overcooking in a dining room that is a place to look forward to with pleasant company, comfortable surrounds and they leave feeling contented.

What management provide:  white linen tablecloth, white china, printed menu, table adornment, matching tables and chairs, consistent seating, regular mealtimes, nutritional dietitian-approved menu, non-break crockery, supervision by care staff, food brought to the dining room for serving en masse.

Do you feel like you haven’t quite nailed the dining experience?  A great starting point is to clarify what vision and culture the management would like.  This is not something to be foisted upon staff and residents, with a vision statement and flowery words on the website. No, it is the heartbeat of the place and should be the pulse of the board and management.  Culture is like water – it flows to the lowest point. It is difficult to contain and can seep through the cracks.  When leaks and seepage occur, it can be difficult to find the starting point. 

Increasingly there is an emphasis on “the dining experience” as a point of difference. Does your best intent create the dining experience your residents are looking for?  How about their families? Do their thoughts match yours – or more importantly, the person who is in care?  What if there is triangulation of thought between the resident, management and family? And where do staff come into it?  The staff I see predominantly back the resident but often think like the family.

There are many instances of outstanding effort by staff and a focus on creating a positive dining experience for residents. A special treat for a palliative care resident, a cuppa with the Chef, extra time and support to finish a meal.

However there are still mixed messages: 

  • All residents have the same 1 or 2 options or an alternative option of salad or sandwich.  
  • Mealtimes are at the same time every day.
  • Blue food handling gloves and disposable hair nets are worn in the dining room.
  • Plates are scraped and stacked on the trolley in the dining room.
  • Everyone in the facility has the same dish at the same time, even for delicate items which are best served immediately and not hot held for extensive time.
  • Vegetables are overcooked and have lost their colour, flavour and smell.
  • The same things are offered between providers – hot options occasionally at breakfast, main at lunch, soup at tea time, salad or sandwich alternatives, favourites of silverside, cottage pie, roast on Sunday, fish on Fridays.  Dietitian approved, nutritional menu, changed a few times per year.

I love it when I feel a contented, happy atmosphere in a facility. Where there is fun and laughter in the dining room. I see variance and surprises that delight residents.

Develop your dining room culture and immerse your staff in it.  Aim for your identity to be infused through how your staff think, behave and feel. Develop staff with a shared mindset.  Your solutions come from your customers – your residents -as they perceive them. Now. Don’t lag behind what your residents are requesting and demanding now.  Don’t jump the gun and create a solution for the future that doesn’t resonate with your current residents.

The right culture matters a lot.  By shifting your thinking to customer expectations and taking your staff, residents and families on the journey, everyone benefits.

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