Creating a care dining experience: making mealtimes enjoyable

Meals are a time to socialise, whilst enjoying delicious, nutritious food – and it shouldn’t be any different in care homes.

Sadly, some care homes have hit the headlines for producing substandard meals; but this is an extreme rarity in the sector.

No matter what your care home food budget, you can introduce a positive care dining experience that will leave residents looking forward to meals – here’s how.


Get residents involved beforehand

Residents may wish to get involved at meal times and help out, which is great because not only can it take some of the pressure off staff; but it can help residents to feel involved too, whilst encouraging social interaction.

From helping prepare the food, to laying the table and arranging the cutlery, there are so many aspects that residents can get involved in.

Depending on what meals you’re serving, employees may be able to encourage further interaction. For instance, why not throw a pizza night, where residents can add the toppings on their pizza?

Making special meals for birthdays and other occasions can be really fun – fish and chip nights on birthdays, turkey with all the trimmings at Christmas, and fresh fruit ice lollies in the summer are just some examples.

One care home extended their afternoon tea, by letting residents decorate their own cakes, and pick strawberries.


Set the scene

Making the dining room a welcoming and inviting space can really help with the care home meal experience.

Keep the room well-lit to avoid any shadows or glares that could cause distress. Use clear signage to highlight designated eating areas, and consider the background noise. Do your residents prefer to be in a calming environment, or would they rather have the background noise of the TV or music? If you play music, why not let residents pick what they listen to?

Another thing to consider is seating. Rather than coming up with a carefully curated seating plan, let residents decide where and who they want to sit with. However, that’s not to say if you know two residents who you think would get on, you can’t encourage them to talk to each other.

You should also consider spatial planning. Traditionally, care home dining rooms are a wide, open space; which can be drastically different from what residents were used to previously. Therefore, to help residents feel as comfortable as possible, you may wish to consider breaking down the space into smaller areas, by using free-standing screening and items of furniture as dividers. The end result is a homely, comforting space, with the opportunity to free up space for special occasion dining nights.

One thing that employees often admit, is the guilt they feel at having lunch or dinner on the job. But the truth is, meal times are such an important experience for residents, that carers should be encouraged to spend time eating with them. They can encourage conversation, to get residents talking and having fun.

Inviting residents’ relatives to attend care home meals can be a nice surprise too. De Hogeweyk dementia village has an on-site restaurant where family members can dine with their loved ones, with plenty of good quality food on offer.

Residents were highly likely to have dined out with their family members prior to moving into a care home, so why shouldn’t they be able to continue doing so – whether it’s dinner out, or a casual lunch at a cafe?


Provide residents with options

Creating a pleasant dining experience is so much easier if you provide residents with options, such as what food to have, and where to have it.

While carers should be encouraging residents to eat together in dining rooms to enable conversation; if a resident occasionally prefers to eat in their room, then let them.

You should also provide residents with a choice of meals. Open-ended questions may not be productive, but in the mornings you could ask residents whether they’d prefer toast or porridge, for example.

Speak with residents regularly to see what their favourite foods are, or if there are any specific meals they don’t like, so you can change your menus from time to time.

With so many different preferences, from medical to religious, cultural and taste, catering your care home meals to individuals can be really beneficial, and make for a much more positive dining experience.

Try to provide at least two different options for the main course, and offer snacks and drinks throughout the day. Water-filled foods such as watermelon, berries and grapes are great for residents to snack on, to keep them hydrated.


Provide thoughtful support

For residents, independence is key – and this extends to care home meal times too. The last thing they want is someone standing over them and feeding them. Yet, they will likely still need an element of support; so think about how you can enable them to do things for themselves.

Put butter, jam, gravy and other condiments in easy-to-hold dishes so residents can use them, instead of having to ask carers for help.

Catering equipment such as cups with handles, high rimmed crockery and tablecloths in contrasting colours are also great investments, helping residents who may be slightly unsteady, or have visual impairments.

Throwaway plates and plastic cutlery can be the easy option as they won’t get broken, and don’t need to be cleaned. However, they’re really bad for the environment, and as a sector we should be focusing on reducing plastic use. Investing in cutlery that can be used again, and allows residents to be more independent are much more beneficial and cost-effective in the long run.

Don’t forget to keep items easily within reach of residents. Having a jug of water in the middle of the table for example, may not be sufficient. Lay out glasses for residents, and perhaps install water dispensers around the care home so they can get water whenever they like; helping to reduce the likelihood of headaches, tiredness and UTIs.

When printing care home food menus, use a large text size, and bolden or highlight important information. Use clear images to depict meals, and avoid using several different fonts, and fancy designs.


Don’t forget about individuals

While the majority of residents will be able to sit in the dining room and enjoy social interaction; sadly this isn’t the case for everyone.

Whether due to medical or mobility issues, some residents may need to eat in their rooms; and to keep the care dining experience a positive one for them too, it’s important they get as much time dedicated to them as everyone else.

When taking food up to their rooms, ensure it’s hot enough, and that they’re carefully placed on a tray so food won’t get knocked off.

Make sure residents are sitting comfortably, and can easily eat their food. Stay with them and chat, so they can enjoy social interaction too – you don’t want anyone to feel isolated or left out.

For residents at late stages of dementia, they may start having difficulty swallowing food; so it’s important to check out their oral health in case they’re experiencing any pain that can be prevented.


Final thoughts

All through life, some of the best memories can be focused around meal times – whether it’s a family gathering, an intimate dinner with a loved one, or international cuisine served on holiday; food can trigger so many happy memories.

That’s why it’s important meal times continue to be a positive experience in care homes – for both residents and employees.

The key is to successful care home meal times is to ensure residents regain their independence, whilst enjoying good food and social interaction – and these five tips can help with just that.

No matter what your budget is, you can still promote a sociable, positive experience; that will have residents looking forward to their next meal.

For the latest developments in the care sector, head on over to our blog. Alternatively, if you’d like to find out more about our services and products, then get in touch – we’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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