Noncommercial diners are coming to the table in 2018 with expectations for meals that fit their individual needs, from portion size to protein type, calories and more. While accommodating personalization of calorie counts and different portion sizes seems to have been born from a desire for healthy eating, eco-conscious diners are also thrilled by the perceived reduction in food waste it brings.
“I see [residents who lived through] the Depression, people who went through tough times with limited food, and they get upset if there’s too much food on a plate,” says Guy Hemond, vice president of culinary and dining experience for Waltham, Mass.-based Benchmark Senior Living. “I see a trend more toward they don't want the standard plate—they want to customize it so it’s a smaller portion of meat, a full portion of vegetables.”
At Benchmark communities, servers are trained to recognize and remember that request for portion personalization. “Because we see our residents so often, servers tend to remember those preferences and ask if this is what they want,” Hemond says. “It’s really a connection between the waitstaff and the resident; they know their likes and dislikes and try to tailor the meal to their needs.”
Offering personalization options can cost more upfront. “After the first five weeks of a new menu, the budget balances itself out. Initially, we need to have a larger quantity of all items available on our a la carte choice dining menu,” Hemond says. “However, after that initial phase, we start to see a dining pattern emerge. Our resident diners, like most other people, are creatures of habit and tend to order many of the same entrees. Once we pinpoint their tastes, it is easy for our culinary team to adjust staffing and food allotment as necessary.”
At La Posada, a senior living community in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., a la minute cooking makes portion-related requests possible. “We do have a resident profile who says, ‘I’m just not a big eater and I don’t want to leave food on the plate,’” says Jeff Kelley, director of dining services. “In this environment where meals are included in their package, they can eat as much as they want in the dining room, but they know they are not going to take it home.”
The same goes for those seeking lighter preparations than the planned menu option, especially since La Posada moved beyond steam trays, Kelley says, and is cooking vegetables and grilling steaks to order. “When a resident comes in and says, ‘I just want my vegetable steamed; I just want a plain piece of fish without the sauce that goes on it,’ or we have residents that have gluten allergies, we can adapt to those needs because we haven’t prepared the food ahead of time,” he says.
That demand for lighter options inspired the addition of a tapas-style dining option to a facility expansion at La Posada that will include a bistro and pub. “[Residents] were saying, ‘I don’t always want to come down and have a three-course meal,’” Kelley says. “‘Sometimes I just want to have a cool bite and a glass of wine and a charcuterie platter.’”