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What Is a Self-Determined Meal, and How It Will Help You with Resident Reviews?

It’s important to understand the importance of customer reviews and how foodservice impacts the overall score a healthcare center or senior community receives.

According to the Pioneer Network Dining Standards, not only does foodservice play a key role in optimizing well-being, it can have a direct impact on review scores. If people are happy with their living environment (and meals are a key focus!), then review scores and census results increase.

So what’s the easiest way to achieve better reviews?

Simple. Make your customers happy.

Meal times are some of our most cherished moments, not just for senior citizens, but for humans in general.

For our aging populations living in senior communities, this fact is even truer, though. With limited mobility or cognition, in many cases meals can break up the day and be moments of clarity, satisfaction, sociability and interest!

But what makes a meal interesting? How can operators make foodservice more engaging and fun? How can residents be empowered?

By allowing them to “self-determine” their meals. Self-determined meal service is basically another way to say choice.

Traditionally, pre-portioned meals are delivered to the table on domed plates. Also, food items and portion sizes are decided in the back-of-the-house based on perceived meal preference lists or in some cases medical needs.

Instead, self-determined meal service brings the selection process to the table, to be made by the guest.

If you stop and think about it, it’s a pretty logical concept, but most senior care communities don’t offer foodservice in this capacity. It's usually just tray service or pre-plated service. Here are the benefits that self-determined meal service offers:


When you have a style of meal service that allows for residents to choose the items and portions they want, they are more likely to eat more of the meal. Food is only nourishing if residents consume it. Therefore, when food is presented in a better way, there is improved intake, less risk of malnutrition, and better overall energy levels. A win for everyone!

Which brings us to another point…


Implementing a meal system that embraces choice makes residents happier, but in turn, staff members become more engaged with the people they serve. Meals become less like a chore and more like hospitality. In addition to talking to residents about the food selections, staff can also talk to them about what’s going on in their lives.

Bringing choice to the dining experience with engaged staff members not only results in happier residents, but staff members that feel empowered and that they’re actually making a difference in a resident’s life.

And speaking of empowerment…


When residents in a senior care community go to the doctor or receive medical care, it so often involves something they have to do. "You need to take this pill twice a day or you cannot do 'this or that' until your hip heals." The sad fact is choice is often taken away from us as we age.

This doesn’t have to be the case with meals, too. The most anticipated times of the day should be interesting and engaging, and residents should have a choice as to how they want to enjoy those times. Don’t feel like having the broccoli today? Opt for the asparagus instead, or choose no vegetable at all. Why plate a vegetable that a resident isn’t going to eat and will just get thrown out? Choice can be a different option, or choice can be the size of the serving, or choosing, “No, thank you.” Just providing that choice can make someone’s day and may just change their lives.

Is your community providing a truly self-directed experience? Are you enjoying the benefits listed above? We have an easy and free way for you to find out.

Take the dining experience quiz to see tips and tricks on where you can improve.

About The Author, Suzanne Quiring:
Suzanne Quiring, RD, CDM, CFPP has worked in residential care for over 25 years and has her Continuing Care Administrator designation. She has assisted over 800 healthcare centers and improved their meal programs with tableside service. She is the inventor of the “SuzyQ Cart System” by Lakeside. She has spoken at conferences throughout North America and is passionate about self-directed dining.