Nutrition is fundamental to living and meals in senior living settings are a source of healthy socialization. Providing both requires a safe environment and an enthusiastic, well-trained team.
In honor of Healthcare Food Service Worker Week (Oct. 2-8, 2022), we are highlighting all our team does.
Virginia Health Services’ dietary department is instrumental in making sure recipes are executed according to Residents’ diets, they are prepared safely and served at proper temperature, and that the Residents have their needs met to the best of the team’s ability.
“So much of what dietary does is behind the scenes, but our buildings cannot function without dietary,” says Viki Reynolds, Director of Dining and Nutrition for VHS.
“It may not be seen, but it’s part of the heart of the building and it takes a lot of skill. Our staff members have to have a large span of skills to make sure we’re compliant and meeting Residents preference. It’s important for them to get nutrition, to serve healthy meals and provide a dining experience. For them, it’s socialization and comfort.”
In other words, from James River Nursing and Rehabilitation Center Dining Services Manager Linda Jones, “Dietary rocks!”
Jones, who has worked for VHS for 27 years, says it’s a privilege to be a part of the team.
“I’ve learned a lot, and had a lot of good people to teach me,” she says. “It’s challenging but it’s rewarding. Your heart has to be with the Residents.”
The Dietary Manager at Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Teresa Bowen, says, “I like the Residents. Working in a place like this, unlike a restaurant, they appreciate what you do for them.”
Unlike in fast food job where you might just flip a hamburger, “we do way more than that!”
The dietary departments of our senior living communities and nursing centers wear many hats to get nutrition to Residents, serve healthy meals and encourage Residents to socialize.
Each Resident’s needs vary. Residents in skilled nursing units are trying to gain strength to rehab and get home. Some Residents may need to take food with certain medications, and their tray timing has to work in synch with the nursing team.
Some Residents need a therapeutic diet (such as low-concentrated salt or sugar) or a textural diet if they have trouble chewing or swallowing (such as meat already cut, softened vegetables or a pureed meal).
The dietary side has to match up with the care plan from the nursing side, Reynolds says.
Residents and families don’t see the actual work that’s being put in, Jones says, but they see the result.
“It takes a certain type of person to do the work and it’s serious,” Jones says. “It gets deep, when it comes to diets, and knowing what is right by the Residents. “It’s serious work and it isn’t easy.”
In addition to abiding by diets and allergies, there are codes and regulations to follow, including when and how frequently trays are loaded onto carts, the temperature of the meal and more.
“That can be overwhelming sometimes,” Jones says.
The upside is knowing you are working hard for the Residents.
“I love seeing the Residents’ happy faces when they eat the food that I make. It brings me joy,” says Coliseum cook Venzel Snead. He spent years in restaurants before coming to long-term care.
“Here you are a bit more intimate with the Residents and can improve what you’re doing so they see it (the consistency), unlike in a restaurant, you change customers daily. They really appreciate what we do.”
Healthcare food service
Our dietary team really gets to know the Residents’ preferences and makes note of them. They will fulfill special requests when they can. They get to know the Residents and their families.
“It takes a team. Everybody that’s working in that dietary department is important,” Jones says. “You do the best you can do.
“You have to be all in and have a humble spirit. You need to be able to receive feedback and want to do things the right way; learn from a mistake and be willing to learn. Be enthusiastic, be hyped up, be on fire!”
Bowen says, “You cook like you cook at home, but a different amount. And less fat and salt. I encourage my team to do different things. We will tweak recipes if we have to.”
And everyone gets geared up to serve holiday meals, such as Cornish hens, ribeye steaks and turkey dinners.
The dietary team becomes part of the Resident’s family. Jones says you often meet with Residents and families who understand you are doing a service.
“At the end of the day, I can visit a Resident’s room and hear, ‘thank you for all you do,’” she says. That appreciation helps build morale.
So does encouragement from the leadership team.
“I like that I see the administration and they’re not afraid to get down and dirty (if we need help),” Bowen says.
Teamwork and being able to come together to “be ready to do the impossible,” Jones says, means “we can do so much more and be so much better if we’re all on the same page.”
At The Arbors Independent Living, and The Hamilton and The Huntington Assisted Living, there are a few more choices in dining. Chef Akira Johnston and her team change the menu monthly to keep dishes and choices fresh for the Residents of The Arbors.
The assisted living communities also are introducing more options, Reynolds says, with more to come.
“We’re figuring out how to best serve our population,” she says.
The Huntington and The Hamilton offer pre-meal bread service, and will introduce a soup or salad course before the meal, “to encourage the Residents to come down and socialize.”
A third dessert offering is also to come, and the dietary staff is figuring out how to interact more with Residents at their room, such as offering fresh, hot items with the help of hot plates and toasters on each floor.
To encourage Residents to eat in the dining room more often (which during the height of COVID went underutilized), the dining managers are ordering fresh linens and chinaware to improve aesthetics, Reynolds said. They also are in the process of setting up a breakfast bar that will feature items like fresh fruit, pastries, muffins, cereal and coffee.
Johnston and the teams at The Huntington and The Hamilton also are excited to introduce fun fare in time for the holidays.
Join our team
Our dietary department is hiring cooks and aides for all of our locations. Job descriptions and how to apply can be found at vahs.com/careers.
“The road is bumpy right now, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Jones says of knowing quality, skilled team members are being hired.