l Use herbs and spices
l Dice meat to aid feeding
l Keep blended foods separate on the plate
l Add sauces to help those with swallowing difficulties
l Create dishes with strong aromas
l Make bread on the premises, but with softened crust
l Involve residents in menu selection
l Use brightly coloured crockery
Champagne sorbet can be a life-saver. When a 78-year-old resident at a home run by the Anchor Trust stopped eating, the Gardner Merchant chef manager there discovered she loved Champagne, made a Champagne sorbet and brought back her appetite. In doing so, he helped prevent the "passive suicide" condition that can occur among the elderly.
Anchor Trust and Gardner Merchant have come to realise that food plays a major part in the mental and physical well-being of the 55,000 residents in the trust's 83 homes.
"Food is an important social moment and the highlight of the residents' day, and our main challenge is to make it look attractive, taste good and stimulate appetites," says Chris Blackburn, Gardner Merchant specialist care operations director north, with responsibility for the Anchor Trust contract.
Anchor is the largest not-for-profit organisation in the field of nursing and residential care, with an annual gross income of £130m. Gardner Merchant won its first contract with the trust in 1984, managing 26 out of 66 homes, with the balance in-house. Nine years ago the catering went out to tender and Gardner Merchant was awarded a four-year cost-plus contract for the entire group, yielding a turnover of about £6.2m. Last year the number of homes rose to 83 when Anchor was chosen by Surrey County Council to manage 17 of its care homes.
Each home has an average of 40 residents, and meals are served in small dining areas for 10 people to keep the atmosphere cosy. Catering staff cook and serve breakfast, lunch and supper, with care staff supplying early-morning and late-night beverages. The teams try to ensure that drinks, biscuits or fruit are available all day should residents require them.
One of Anchor's main aims is to allow residents as much choice and independence as possible, even providing each with their own letterbox and telephone. The same flexibility is expected from the catering, although this is complicated by the fact that many residents suffer from varying stages of dementia. Liaison between the chef manager, the home manager and care staff is vital in overcoming communication difficulties.
"The challenge is to not treat any resident differently simply because they may not know what they're eating," says Martin Smith, chef manager at Chantry House, Suffolk, one of the trust's homes. "If residents don't want a dish, they don't have to have it. Professional pride makes me want to please them with good food that they want to eat."
Smith tries to use fresh herbs, such as the sage, parsley and chives grown in the grounds of the home, as much as possible. He is also keen on sauces, which help those with swallowing difficulties, and in stimulating taste buds by using ingredients such as mustard, wine or onions. Pastry is often difficult for old people to digest, so his lemon meringue pie has a biscuit crumb base and apple pie comes with a lattice top which looks attractive but reduces the pastry content. "I try to give every resident what they like, even lobster, which I mix with seafood and juggle the costs to serve a cheaper meal next day," he says.
Chantry House has a Nostalgia Room decorated in the style of the 1920-30s to stimulate memory. Tea parties are held there and meals using wartime recipes such as bacon roly-poly with onion gravy, and rabbit pie, are offered.
This year Smith and his team won the annual Gardner Merchant Catercare Five Star awards recognising staff who make the life of residents different or extra-special.
Although chef managers have freedom to design their own menus, portions are agreed with Anchor and Gardner Merchant employs a dietician offering nutritional guidelines and training. The trust also encourages residents to get involved in menu planning.
"We try to experiment with meals, but only after we've got 75% agreement, and we always hold tastings," says David Labbett, chef manager at Silver Court Home, East Grinstead, West Sussex. "Favourites such as roast or steak and kidney pie stay, but curry or pasta sometimes make an appearance.
"Regular dishes are given a face-lift, such as cottage pie made from turkey, and we accommodate different tastes such as offering sweet-and-sour pork and pork casserole on the same day."
Presentation is vital. Individual foods are puréed separately if necessary, and kept separate on the plate to retain colour and taste. Pies are made partly with diced meat at and partly with puréed ingredients. Only the decoration on the pie crust signifies to the server which end has the puréed content.
The trust and Gardner Merchant will not disclose food costs, but each home has a special functions allowance that it can use as it wishes. Theme days, such as a Caribbean evening or a strawberry tea during Wimbledon, are popular.
"Flexibility is essential. We have budgets but we're looking for caterers that supply value for money rather than forcing costs downward," says Bob Bird, catering support services manager for Anchor Trust, which has 60% fee paying residents and 40% local authority revenue-funded residents.
Staff recruitment is not easy in this sector, which suffers from "old folks' home syndrome". The job also requires a staff take more vocational approach.
"It's vital that caterers working with the trust have empathy with older people. This job involves a high degree of care and not every individual can respond," says Bird. Gardner Merchant has 300 staff working at Anchor Trust homes on wages ranging from £3.80 per hour for catering assistants to £18,000 per annum for chef managers. Basic training can be supplemented by courses for specific sites - dealing with residents suffering from dementia, for instance.
"The biggest challenge facing contractors is understanding residents' needs and making sure they are satisfied," says Bird. "They must understand how important it is for residents to feel they have the ability to get a biscuit or a piece of fruit when they want to." n