Many long-term care facilities are having to change their policies and procedures on just about everything since the COVID-19 pandemic. All this is done to protect our residents and keep them as safe as possible. Food is still one of the most anticipated things for the resident. During this time, there may be a need to adjust menus due to availability and staffing. Keeping the menu as close to normal is ideal but there may be occasions when food items might have to be switched out in order to get the meal to everyone in a timely manner.

Because employees may become ill and therefore affect staffing levels, the manager needs to have various options available in case this happens. There are some things that can be done if there are staffing issues.

  • Relying on more heat and serve and convenience items when staffing is limited is an option. If the budget is an issue, be sure to discuss this with administration first. Extra money that is spent on the food budget may balance out with money saved on staffing and labor.
  • Look through menus and recipes to see if they can be simplified. Check with your registered dietitian when making changes to assure proper substitutions are being made.
  • This may be a good time to utilize an emergency menu policy if available. Emergency menu policies often contain cold meal service so make sure it is used short term only. Residents generally prefer a hot meal as much as possible so cold meal service should only be temporary.
  • Check inventory on hand and if there are excesses, the menu may need to be adjusted to use up the food. Be flexible with the menu, indicate “potatoes” instead of “ranch fries” or “vegetable of the day” instead of “green beans”.
  • Try to limit using disposable dinnerware as much as possible as these are costly, and shortages are anticipated soon. Per the CDC, regular china and silverware are appropriate to use currently as the dish machine properly cleans and sanitizes.

CMS recently released new guidelines cancelling communal dining to facilitate social distancing among seniors. These new guidelines create challenges for all long-term care facilities, residents and staff. There are some easy meal ideas that can make things easier during this crisis.

  • Meals that contain all hot items or all cold items are a good idea when trying to assure food stays at the correct temperature. An example would be a deli sandwich, cheese puffs, three bean salad, and fresh fruit. All these items are served cold or room temperature and not serving a hot item with them will help them maintain that temperature.
  • Work with other staff members to assure a smooth meal service. Any staff passing trays will need to have items available to them such as condiments, additional drinks, napkins, etc.  If cold items will be kept separately for service (i.e. milk stored in pans with ice on top of food cart) make sure to notify staff and show them how to read the tray cards for accuracy.
  • Making sure there is enough dinnerware and supplies to serve residents in their rooms is very important. Are there enough trays? Are there enough lids for plates or enough saran wrap or foil to cover everything? Look at menus to assure proper supplies are available.
  • Communication is very important. Let residents, families, and staff know if the facility is making menu changes. Residents will be much happier and understanding if they are aware of what’s going on and what is being done to help protect them. Not communicating with staff, residents, and families may cause confusion and stress. Residents look forward to their meals and need to know if changes are being made. Work with your registered dietitian when making menu changes to assure regulations are being met.
  • Consider adding a small gift or activity to one of the resident’s meals each day such as a coloring book, candy or word search.
  • If time permits, try preparing theme meals. This is a great time for a baseball theme meal (hopefully baseball will be starting soon)! Maybe take a survey of the residents to see what teams they like. If they are a Cardinals fan, serve their meal on a red tray liner. If they are a Cubs fan, serve their meal on a blue tray liner. Plan a baseball themed menu or surprise them with a baseball themed snack such as a soft pretzel or cookies decorated like a baseball.
  • Another theme meal could be a Spring Picnic. Use gingham tray liners and serve hamburgers with potato salad, mixed fruit, and ice cream.

Being able to adapt quickly to changes is vital during this time. There seems to be new and revised directions daily from the government and healthcare organizations. While some days we may have to adjust the menu due to unplanned circumstances, making sure we are providing the most nutritious meals we can to our residents is our number one job.  All facilities will eventually be back to normal practices of communal dining and visits from loved ones, but until that time making the best of a difficult situation is the most important thing we can do.