Tripe and onions might, to the modern palate, seem a highly unusual dish but chef and leading aged care food provider Peter Kennett says rest home residents ask for it "more than you'd think".
Kennett is managing director of Cibus Catering Group, a company that staffs some kitchens for major aged care provider Radius (22 locations around New Zealand) and creates meals for Radius kitchen staff to serve to an audience for whom food is especially important.
As Radius founder Brien Cree says: "Food is something we all look forward to in life, and this never really changes no matter how old you are. It's our desire to create a warm, homely environment where our residents enjoy living and, frankly, you're not going to get that if you serve up slop.
"To me, it's essential to get the heart of our homes right by offering our residents food that is heartwarming and nourishing."
Kennett says the tripe and onions example shows how well that is working. Radius and Cibus staff hold regular residents' feedback meetings where the menu is very definitely on the menu. Family members, keen to check their loved ones are being looked after, also attend.
"Tripe and onions is a dish you either love or hate but, with an older age group, it is requested quite often. So we have to have the flexibility and ability to meet requests like that," he says.
Radius and Cibus work on a four-week, non-repeating cycle so, as Kennett says, if bacon and egg pie is served once in the four-week period, it is not served again until another cycle.
Menus and meals are checked by independent dietitians, who ultimately report back to the relevant DHB, ensuring residents' nutrition and dietary needs are being met.
Kennett says there are few emerging trends and patterns across the Radius sites, with most residents preferring "New Zealand-based", traditional cuisine prepared by qualified chefs in Radius kitchens armed with high quality commercial ovens.
"Our most popular dish is fish and chips on Fridays," he says. "That and roast lamb, roast pork and roast beef are the most popular. We didn't serve fish and chips for a while – it was thought not to be healthy enough – but there was a lot of call for it to come back.
"So we did, and we cook it in oil now to make sure it meets health requirements; it is probably our number one dish."
Kennett is a trained chef himself and ran several restaurants before heading overseas to the UK for spells in Brighton and Scotland before returning to run his own restaurant in Dunedin. He says Radius has also attracted many other chefs to work in their kitchens: "Many of them have worked in good restaurants and cafes long term – but they like the nine-to-five working hours.
"I think that is part of the reason why the standard of cooking and quality of food in places like Radius has gone through the roof in recent years and over the 20-or-so years I've been involved in the field. It's not just eggs on toast any more – far from it."
Asked if there are regional preferences across the homes – like do southerners like brussels sprouts more than northerners, for example – Kennett says most have similar tastes.
"But what you do find is contradictory likes and dislikes in quite similar areas. For example, you find that one Radius home residents love macaroni cheese. Down the road a few kilometres, at another one, they hate macaroni cheese – so, again, we have to be able to have the flexibility to deal with that."
Often the likes and dislikes can be pretty micro: "We heard from one residents' feedback group recently that they really didn't like the lemon and caper sauce on our fish – so we changed that out."
While Kennett says most residents prefer traditional New Zealand cuisine rather than exotic, spicy food, there were some food trends beginning to assert themselves in New Zealand society that had yet to be reflected in aged care facilities.
An example is gluten-free diets. The letters "GF" on a menu would have puzzled many a few years ago but are now common as more of the population opts for such a diet.
"We would have only one or two people per facility with gluten-free requirements," says Kennett. "But if you look at the numbers in our school colleges, for example, you are probably looking at 30 out of every 100 students on gluten-free.
"So that seems likely to be something we may have to cope with in the future."
Cree says he attended a residents meeting at one of our facilities: "The feedback on the food was not 'Yes, it's fine', which probably would have been a satisfactory response – but the residents used words like 'fantastic' to describe the food. That's not normally a word you'd expect to be associated with an aged care facility.
"So, yes, we have dietitians check the menus to ensure they meet nutritional requirements, but the biggest measurement tool we rely on is our "customer" satisfaction.
When we get that great feedback, we know we've hit the right mark with our meals."
We can help. Visit us at Radius Care or call us on 0800 737 2273.