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How baby boomers keep changing foodservice

Baby boomers grew up eating many of their meals in restaurants, school and corporate cafeterias and college dining halls. Patronizing foodservice establishments is part of their DNA, and indeed, more than half of today’s consumers between the ages of 53 and 72 use foodservice on a weekly basis. But they bring different expectations to the experience.

Compared to the generation that preceded them, baby boomers have been exposed to more flavors, ingredients and cuisines. They also have changing ideas about healthy eating and convenience. So how are these preferences playing out in noncommercial? 

Although many Americans over 65 are still working, baby boomers are gradually moving into retirement communities. Here’s how operators in senior living are paying close attention to the preferences and demands of this generation.

Transparency replaces stealth health

When Executive Chef Steve Plescha came to Pennswood Village in Newtown, Pa., 13 years ago, reducing fat and sodium were major health goals, but the kitchen had to be a little sneaky about it. “Stealth health” was the order of the day; substituting citrus and herbs for salt, for example, but not revealing the switch.

“Now residents want to know everything, and we put the place of origin on all our proteins and produce and describe how the animals were slaughtered,” Plescha says. “We’re up front and in your face.”

That transparency fits into boomers’ current definition of health, which includes terms such as local, fresh and clean. Plescha’s team makes all Pennswood’s salad dressings from scratch with natural agave, creating a cleaner product with just six ingredients instead of the 15 in the previously purchased commercial dressing. 

"Now residents want to know everything, and we put the place of origin on all our proteins and produce and describe how the animals were slaughtered. We're up and in your face." —Steve Plescha

The salad bar itself now includes a variety of beans and legumes and fresh vegetables, some from residents’ gardens, that are rotated seasonally into the dinner menu. And while there’s little call for vegan dishes, “vegetable-forward plates now comprise 30% of the menu compared to 10% a few years back,” he says.

Flavor first

While older residents may consider Chinese and Italian ethnic cuisines, younger newcomers are craving Thai, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern dishes, says Caitlin Rogers, VP of dining and nutrition services for Sunrise Senior Living. Regional American flavors are also trending, with chefs at each of Sunrise’s 300 communities creating locally specific menus, such as Tex-Mex in the Southwest and coastal seafood in the Southeast.

“We’re in preparation mode, creating a foundation so we’re ahead of the influx of baby boomers coming into our communities,” she says.

Technomic data reveals that 70% of baby boomers put a high priority on taste, and chefs are responding by building more global flavors into dishes, particularly with seafood—a protein in high demand among this age group. Favorite menu items at Vi at Bentley Village, an 800-resident community in Naples, Fla., include seared tuna with papaya slaw and miso aioli and ginger sherried broiled salmon with black quinoa salad, reports Executive Chef Shep Drinkwater. Pairing more exotic flavors with familiar foods wins over residents, he says.

Meal flexibility on the rise

Snacking and off-premise dining—two trends that baby boomers are embracing along with younger consumers—are starting to impact senior living communities. “Our Mediterranean concept is doing 85 to 90 meals to go a day,” says Drinkwater. Another cafe concept offers wraps, light sandwiches and low-sugar desserts for between-meal snacks.

"The snacking piece is really important and will continue to grow." 
—Caitlin Rogers

“We have bistros in all our [Sunrise] communities that are stocked for all-day eating with cheese and crackers, beverages and other snacks,” Rogers says. In addition, afternoon activities may revolve around snacking, such as a made-to-order smoothie station. “The snacking piece is really important and will continue to grow,” she says.

Photograph: Shutterstock

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