With dining listed as one of the most important experiences for older adults living in senior living communities, paying close attention to dietary restrictions often can be a differentiator when it comes to potential residents and families choosing a community that best meets the needs of the older adult.

Of course, offering healthy, nutritious meal options is important. Often, a need exists for more restricted diets, however. Along with requests for foods that have positive effects on hypertension, diabetes or heart disease, a high demand exists for gluten-free options as well.

According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the global gluten-free, or GF, food market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.62% through 2021. This growth will be driven in large part by an increasing awareness of the health benefits of GF foods and the prevalence of gluten intolerance. This growing interest in gluten-free dining options certainly has caught the eye of senior living communities.

Providing gluten-free options that are delicious and nutritious can feel like a tall order for senior living communities, however, because they often have to manage complex resident needs with little or no warning when a GF diet is needed. When you consider that ingesting even a single crumb can wreak havoc for someone with gluten intolerance, it is clear that meeting the dietary needs of residents with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity is worth the attention of those who operate senior living communities.

Providing GF options isn’t just a health or safety issue. It also makes sound business sense when you consider the number of people with gluten intolerance. Approximately 1% of the population (one out of every 133 people) has celiac disease, and up to 6% may have nonceliac gluten sensitivity. The number of people adopting a GF diet as part of a healthy lifestyle continues to increase. Hence, providing GF options can be a differentiator for those selecting a senior living community, because it provides current and future residents with confidence that their dietary needs are in good hands. GF options also encourage visits from friends and family members with special dietary needs, and they improve the overall well-being of senior residents.

Simple changes can make the difference

Despite the growing demand, many senior living communities may shy away from offering GF options due to the perceived challenges of preparing meals that meet industry standards. The FDA, for example, defines “gluten-free” as foods containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

The good news is that preparing GF meals doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge. By adopting a few simple procedures, senior living communities can prepare GF dishes at minimal cost.

Some of the steps you can take to prepare GF meals:

  1. Dedicate specific utensils and equipment to prepare GF substitutes.
  2. Prepare GF dishes before preparing other meals.
  3. Store GF ingredients and equipment in separate locations.
  4. Train staff on safe food preparation and handling procedures.

Although preparing gluten-free meals is achievable, it is important to be aware of pitfalls associated with cross-contamination and take precautions. Unlike some biologic contaminations, a gluten contamination will not be eliminated through cooking or sanitation, so the staff will require training to prevent cross-contamination involving gluten. It also is a good practice to have a dietitian review every menu and include a gluten-free meal option in every menu cycle.

Certification brings peace of mind for all

Obtaining certification from an industry-recognized GF certification program is a positive initiative for senior living communities for many reasons:

  • Certification programs make adding GF options easier by helping to develop policies and procedures that foodservice operators can implement and follow to assure the safety of food items.
  • A third-party food service certification program is cost-effective in that it provides the needed expertise and experience to help senior living communities with proper training and establishing appropriate standards.
  • Written standards and effective training are especially important when new employees, who may be unfamiliar with the special requirements of GF food preparation, join your organization.
  • Certification from a third-party program also earns the trust and loyalty of potential and current GF residents and their families.

Providing GF options is an attainable goal for organizations that serve seniors with special dietary needs. With careful planning and help from knowledgeable professionals, senior living communities can head off possible issues with cross-contamination, promote better health outcomes for residents and their loved ones — and provide a competitive advantage in a crowded market.

It’s a recipe for success from which everyone involved with the community will benefit.