Pleasant dining experiences are among the ones seniors hold onto most dearly. Yet too often not enough thought is given to minding the details. That’s where strategic dining decisions can be so critical. Such decisions can involve everything from a dining room makeover to efforts such as local food sourcing and menu tweaks. Our experts explain here how to make the most palatable decisions.

1. Make it an “experience.”

Connecting a place with food evokes powerful feelings, especially in seniors, says David Koelling, president of Strategic Dining Services.

“Many communities may offer an Italian night tonight with an Italian menu. The game changer is to transform the room into an Italian restaurant, complete with checkered tablecloths, candles in Chianti bottles, Italian music, special lighting and the host or hostess in a tuxedo,” Koelling says.

Make sure to include fresh baked Italian bread and a bread plate for olive oil and balsamic vinegar and have the servers grate fresh Parmesan onto the plate before bread service, he adds.

Facilities willing to spend a little extra to make their dining rooms “destinations” can really make dining a special event, agrees Lee Boudreau, senior vice president, Business Excellence, for Unidine Corp. Today’s seniors want change, choice and customization from their dining offerings, and that includes a modernized environment, and increased operations availability beyond traditional mealtime service hours, he adds. This gives residents flexibility with expanded hours and additional menu options.

“We’ve seen communities update or renovate their dining rooms and create the perception of different atmospheres by creating distinct sections of their dining room with unique interior designs and providing seating variations such as booths, banquets, high-tops, bar seating and more so that residents can choose to dine in a setting that matches their mood or the occasion,” Boudreau observes.

Those providers that do so can “enhance their dining program to mirror the retail experiences of the marketplace and raise the bar on culinary and hospitality.”

2. Spice up the menu (and that doesn’t necessarily mean extra spicy food!).

Evidence shows variety is truly the spice of life, and menus that surprise and delight can boost the dining experience.

Koelling is critical of so-called “evolving menus” that merely rotate menus every four to six weeks.

“The trick to creating variety for the residents is not adding additional options but changing the options that they see now, particularly by responding to seasonal changes or resident requests,” he says.

One caveat: Avoid making wholesale changes. Instead, introduce new things as they become available in the market.

“This reduces the strain on the kitchen changing an entire menu and reduces strain on the bottom line by the waste that occurs during those menu changes,” Koelling says.

Adds Boudreau: “Enhancing the menu and culinary artistry also can support their understanding of all of the health and wellness benefits of a culinary upgrade so that decisions are well-received, and residents buy into your dining program.”

3. Consider customized dining options.

“We’ve found that dining is a driving force in modernizing a senior living community because it yields greater resident satisfaction and the food quality has both a physical benefit to health as well as an emotional connection,” says Boudreau.

For example, one of Unidine’s communities successfully transformed an unused room into a wine bar that offers tapas-style dining. “Not only do the residents enjoy the additional option, but their families appreciated that they could reserve and utilize the space for special occasions and family gatherings,” he adds.

Another Illinois Unidine community with a formal dining room now provides sit-down service along with a grand buffet daily. Residents have the option to relax and “dine” or eat more quickly with the buffet. The change was a big hit among residents.

“From our experience, communities that can offer multiple dining venues can increase resident satisfaction and occupancy rates,” Boudreau adds.

Other successful strategies include providing Benihana-style hibachi grill and seating, “all-day dining” and in-home delivery.

4. Make a visible commitment to healthy food.

“Execute your communications around the importance of responsibly sourced products, seasonal and local ingredients, and commitment to the community through responsibly sourced goods with the environment top-of-mind,” says Boudreau.

“This decision and messaging reinforces your expertise to residents and their families and signals a commitment to doing the right thing.”

5. Engage residents before making major changes.

Finally, Boudreau cautions providers to include dining in the community’s five- to 10-year master plan. Collect and organize resident demographics; services provided; current occupancy rates; and the characteristics and conditions of your buildings and infrastructure, staffing and leadership, he urges.