Fancy cuisine. Farm-to-table fare. Full-service restaurants.

When it comes to food, progressive senior living communities are delivering a five-star experience.

Let’s look at the trends:

1. Providing plentiful choices

A description of today’s typical resident reads like this: well-educated, well-traveled, with exacting expectations. Forward-thinking communities are eager to please by offering residents excellence in every aspect of senior living, starting with food.

Gone are the days of ho-hum meals in cafeteria-like settings. Menus today span the gourmet gamut, from baked Dijon salmon to falafel with cucumber sauce, French apple tart to double chocolate soufflé. In leading-edge senior communities, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan selections are available daily, along with seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables, locally sourced. Communities with large ethnic populations offer menu options that follow cultural traditions.

2. Creating an experience

Senior living communities are designing not only new menus, but new mealtime experiences.

Stylish dining rooms provide an elegant ambiance, with meal orders taken at tableside and delivered in courses. Other locales, like cafes and bistros, feature extended hours and casual dining. Interactive food stations serves up customized selections on the spot, from made-to-order omelets to build-your-own pizza.

3. Hiring top chefs

Senior living communities are seeking out chefs and staff with hospitality backgrounds, many of whom have trained at renowned culinary schools. Executive chefs see meal preparation as an art. They design inspired menus, supervise day-to-day food preparation, and oversee special culinary events. They also train their staff to have a laser-like focus on resident expectations.

4. Engaging residents in menu creation

Diners are curious about the food on their plate. Where were the vegetables grown? How was the chicken seasoned? What’s in that secret sauce? Engaging residents, soliciting their feedback, and incorporating those suggestions into the menu is just as important as proper execution in the kitchen. Talking with residents and offering satisfaction surveys give diners a voice in their mealtime experience. Chefs introduce new dishes with care, answering residents’ questions and explaining meal preparation. They dine with residents at a “Chef’s Table” to hear opinions on the menu, cater to special requests, and foster relationships.

5. Meeting special dietary needs

Innovative dining approaches are not just for residents in independent living. Creativity carries through the entire care continuum. For example, seniors who have difficulty chewing or swallowing food may need to switch to pureed foods as their main diet. These are cooked foods turned into a paste form through blending or grinding – and put into food molds so that they look like their original form. Progressive senior communities also have dieticians on site to cater to special dietary needs, from low-sodium to gluten-free selections, and to help manage any chronic illnesses through helpful food choices. Heart-healthy meals, using herbs and spices as primary seasonings, are staples for therapeutic diets.

Maplewood Park Place: Dining in style, a case in point

Maplewood Park Place – a resident-owned retirement community in Bethesda, Maryland – has rapidly emerged as a trendsetter in senior living dining. Menu selections are wide ranging, from internationally inspired dishes to vegan creations. Residents can choose their dining venue, from a formal, reservations-only dining room to a casual café (hearth-oven pizza, anyone?).

The Maplewood dining experience is overseen by Director of Food and Beverage Clinton Powell, who has 30 years of experience in food service. The master in the kitchen is Executive Chef Francis Otoo, affectionately known as “Chef.” He brings to the table an impressive background in preparing haute cuisine at such venues as the Hilton Hotel and the Embassy of Ghana. Chef and his staff thoughtfully design each daily menu selection, along with special fare for internationally themed banquets, Wine Dinners, and holidays and festivals. Cooking demonstrations offer an experience of how Maplewood meals are created, and residents are regularly consulted for their input on menu selections. An onsite registered dietician advises on nutrient requirements and dietary concerns, and pureed dishes are artfully prepared.

“It’s a new day in senior dining,” Chef says. “Meals are no longer an afterthought to the resident experience. They’re at the core – the key ingredient for enhancing health, creating enjoyment, and building community.”