5 Ways to Change Your Dining Environment by Friday

The dining environment in senior living communities is a major factor in resident satisfaction. So important, in fact, that residents and families who are satisfied with their mealtime experience are more satisfied with your organization overall, and therefore more likely to recommend your community to others.

To residents in your community, mealtimes are much more than food. Up to 60% of their day is spent anticipating a meal, preparing for a meal, going to a meal, eating a meal, visiting with friends in the hall after a meal, or returning from a meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are highly anticipated times to get out of their rooms, socialize, and be in community with each other and staff.

In this environment, quality of service matters. What restaurant owners have long known, and senior living communities are starting to learn, is: server interactions with customers influence the customers’ perception of the establishment. Servers create the ambiance of the meal and are central figures in dining quality. Properly trained servers have the power to endear your community to every resident.

Most importantly, top-notch service in the dining room restores dignity, honor and respect to residents. It creates a hospitable, warm, homey environment in what is, after all, the residents’ home. Mealtime is a superior time to create genuine personal connections and help residents gain a sense of belonging.

Forward-thinking leaders are transforming the dining experience in senior care. Is your organization embracing the culture shift? Here are 5 things you can do this week to lead your team to dining excellence.

1. Don’t tolerate any more griping about the food from staff. It’s no secret consumers think eating in nursing homes is awful. Seniors living in assisted living communities, and even luxurious continuing care communities (CCRCs), admit to unfavorable perceptions of the food. Still, staff needs to stop insulting the food. It only feeds negative stereotypes and perceptions, lowering morale for everyone, including residents. And all too often, the griping isn't even accurate; it’s just a habitual way of relating to each other. As long as management ignores the problem, it will continue, to everyone’s detriment.

Talk to all staff about the role perception plays in food enjoyment. An elegantly arranged plate is a delight to the eye that predisposes the diner to enjoy their meal. Similarly, the way we hear food described can stimulate enticing mental images or repulsive thoughts. We’ve all had the experience of believing we did not like a food item before we even tried it, based solely on preconceived notions. Negative talk about the food creates the same phenomenon. People begin to assume the food is lousy before they even pick up their fork.

Set a standard that negative talk about the food is unacceptable. Practice positive, or at least neutral, responses staff can use when talking to residents about meals.

2. Empathize with servers and introduce a more caring mindset. Servers have a complex job that demands a balance of social skills, etiquette, serving skills, multi-tasking and time management. The server’s job in a senior living community dining room is even more complex than that of a typical restaurant waitperson. There are more situations where some amount of personal care or assistance is needed and more government regulations and quality initiatives that must be taken into account. These employees are the face of the organization in the dining room, representing the entire company every day in one of the most emotional environments community-wide. Yet server’s skill development is often neglected by management until a surveyor cites a problem, and worse, the process of serving a meal is allowed to be treated with condescension by their co-workers.

Stop and think about all the job tasks your servers do and the importance of that job to community building and resident satisfaction. Your dining staff is a valuable company asset and everyone benefits when servers feel like valued members of the team. If you express your gratitude and ensure they are treated with dignity and respect, your empathy will extend through them to the residents. Encouragement and praise for good work leads to staff that is more engaged with their jobs and more able to serve residents joyfully and hospitably.

3. Involve everyone in dining service. That’s right, everyone: nurses, housekeepers, medication aides, managers—everyone. Service is not solely the job of dining staff; the residents’ needs must trump departmental territorialism and job descriptions. Everyone in the organization needs to at least know the day’s menu, how to welcome and seat someone in the dining room, and how to properly pour beverages.

If you have staff who feel it is beneath them to function as “waitresses,” remind them of the importance of the dining experience to community building and restoring honor and dignity to residents. Serving elders is honorable work and in keeping with our missions to enhance their health and well-being. It also provides opportunities to make genuine personal connections and deepen relationships with the people we serve.

Set a standard that all employees are equally accountable for making residents’ mealtime experiences pleasant and enjoyable, regardless of their department or position. Encourage staff from all departments to learn and practice together as a means of developing team unity throughout your community.

4. Lead in person. Service excellence and continuous improvement start at the top. If you value and promote high-quality service, key leadership needs to be present in the dining room during mealtimes. The administrator should visit the dining room at least once a day. Having department leaders on hand during mealtime shows staff you are committed to superb dining service. It also allows leadership to notice and address performance that does not meet standards and praise performance that does. Effective leaders position themselves on the front lines to assess situations, stay in touch with the issues that affect staff, and evaluate the best ways to move forward.

While you’re there, walk your talk about service. Pour coffee, help stimulate conversation among residents, and make yourself of service to residents and the team. In restaurants, the highest respect paid to a customer is to have the owner personally visit the table to say thank you for dining in his restaurant. Administrators who show residents the same respect during meals reinforce the message that dining service is valuable to the organization. Interacting with residents and staff this way helps break down communication barriers and immediately improves service performance.

5. Make a commitment to continue improvements to dining service. Study after study shows excelling in the dining room helps meet residents’ need to be respected and nurtured, increases resident and staff retention, brings in more new customers, reduces overall expenses, and maximizes profitability. And the dining experience has become more important due to new regulatory expectations and the arrival of Baby Boomers, who are shopping senior living communities for their parents and themselves. Senior living communities who embrace attitudes of genuine hospitality will rise to the top in today’s competitive marketplace.

Change can be challenging, but education and skill-building for all team members will make an enormous difference. When everyone understands what customer service looks like, service skills are performed correctly, and positive attitudes are consistently projected, company values are communicated loud and clear. Servers gain confidence because they feel valued and see their actions have impact. Most important of all, residents feel they are receiving respect, attention and care.