Preparing meals for Aged Care residents is a rewarding role, yet not without its challenges and steep learning curves, as Andrew Smith discovered when he began at Estia Health Daw Park as the Managing Chef.
“The menu is prepared from fresh food, not frozen. When the residents love food as much as you do, it’s great to use fresh produce.”
At Daw Park, all the menus are prepared by on-site Chefs and are nutritionally balanced to meet the needs of residents. Chefs cater for the personal preferences of residents, and incorporate local or seasonal produce where possible.
Among the first things you notice...
The first thing Andrew noticed when he began was all the notes next to residents' names on the wall. It quickly became evident he would need to take note of the particular requirements and requests of residents. “Everyone has different diets, different likes and dislikes and my job was to ensure every meal met those individual requirements.”
“I’d previously worked in a Navy kitchen, and in hospitals, so I was accustomed to large scale catering and special diets. Yet I’d never experienced catering to specific individual preferences. It was really interesting and a lot to take in.”
Bring back the taste of home
Daw Park is home for 80 residents. Everyone likes to have food prepared exactly the way it was cooked at home.
“Food is so important to people. Part of the role of caring for elderly people is listening to their needs and understanding what’s important. The whole hospitality team is focused on knowing what everyone likes or dislikes when it comes to food.”
“Many residents know a lot about food themselves, and have their own favourite recipes. It certainly helps if you learn everyone’s specific needs and tastes. They would be quick to tell you if you haven’t done it the right way!”
The challenges of meeting quality and time
Some of the major challenges in an Aged Care kitchen is the responsibility of making quality food with limited time. Food is prepared and served from morning until night and the team needs to work seamlessly from prep to service to keep to schedule. Andrew learned to hand over to other team members the management of after-hours, evening and weekend service. Communication and time management is crucial in an Aged Care setting.
“Having a great team makes all the difference. The kitchen staff are great. This really takes the pressure off and makes the whole day more enjoyable and rewarding.”
Special diets can be another challenge
Texture modification can be a steep learning curve for aspiring Chefs, new to Aged Care. Andrew advises new Chefs to learn as much as they can about how to prepare a menu for a soft and pureed diet, including how to plate it so it looks appetising.
“One of the hardest things I had to learn was to cook food to be soft. Chefs are traditionally taught to not over-cook food to avoid it becoming too soft. A crunchy texture is such an important part of the experience of many foods, but if you don’t have teeth or have difficulty swallowing, it has to be soft.”
Andrew learned he had to test food with a completely new perspective. “I would often do a chew test in preparation. If I could eat and swallow the food easily using only my tongue against the roof of my mouth, I knew it would be safe for a resident.”
Having empathy is crucial
“I have a new appreciation and empathy for elderly people. Some lose their ability to chew, some lose their sense of taste. It must be really hard. You definitely need empathy to work in Aged Care.”
“Working in Aged Care is interesting work and you definitely learn a lot. Managing the time restraints and personal preferences can be a challenge, but with a great team, the work is very enjoyable. It gives you a good feeling to serve the residents their favourite nourishing food.”
Here is a summary of Andrew’s top tips for new-to-Aged Care Chefs
- Take time to get to know every resident’s personal likes and dislikes
- Be flexible about the menu, and make sure to keep favourite dishes all year round
- Be mindful of special diets and restrictive diets, while retaining loads of flavour
- Learn to cook food to a very soft and smooth texture
- Have empathy – some residents may have lost their sense of taste or struggle to swallow, but everyone loves food!
- Be prepared to work within tight timeframes
- Build great relationships and have good communication with the team