Dirk Noteboom headshot
Dirk Noteboom, RD

Food is one of your biggest opportunities.

Every single day, residents eat in your community, which means every single day, you have an opportunity provide a meal so good that residents can’t help but talk about it and ask, “What’s on the menu tomorrow?”

But many senior living communities aren’t living up to their potential. They’re only offering a limited and programmatic dining experience. The menu rarely changes, and it can be difficult to source quality ingredients. The result is a dining program that is, at best, “good enough” but doesn’t go the extra mile for the residents.

What’s needed is customization. Customizing the dining experience can generate excitement among residents, can help drive occupancy and can improve the overall culture in your community.

There are four basic aspects of building a customized dining experience:

  1. Resident feedback
  2. Menu variety
  3. Events
  4. Branding

In this article, I’ll dive into each of those aspects and provide examples of how you can leverage them to improve the dining service in your community.

Resident feedback

The first step to understanding how to best serve your residents is to simply ask them.

Do surveys. Conduct interviews. Send out feedback cards. Be an active participant in all resident councils.

Get as much information as you can on the preferences your residents have. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the current program. Ask them what they’d like to see more of. Ask them to rate the quality of different food items.

Getting resident feedback will give insight into what you’re doing well and what you need to start customizing to meet your residents’ expectations.

Menu variety

People want to feel as if they have control. In cookie-cutter dining services, you’re not allowing residents to exercise control over their meals.

With customization, you can offer this sense of control by offering variety. Start by offering more options on your regular menu. Include options from different cuisines, such as Asian, Mediterranean or Latin American.

Also, be sure to keep things fresh throughout the year:

  • Run a different special every day of the week (and don’t repeat one too often unless you find a community favorite).
  • Change the menu with each new season by sourcing seasonal and local ingredients.
  • Add themed dishes that correspond to holidays.

If you can offer opportunities for your residents to feel in control over their dining, they’ll be happier and more engaged.


Food can play a significant role in the social activity of your community. Building events around the dining experience is a great way to do this.

There are endless opportunities for events, but here are a few examples you could incorporate:

  • Cooking showcases.
  • Monthly international nights (you can get really creative here and decorate the entire dining room in whatever theme you choose).
  • Prime nights with a dining experience that includes candlelit dinners and an upscale surf-and-turf menu.
  • Speak With Your Dietitian Day — offer a healthy dish and have a chance for the dietitian to explain the benefits.

I recommend building out a calendar that you can print out and distribute to residents, so they know what to expect each week and month. This is a fantastic way to improve the dining experience and the social aspect of your community.


Branding is an integral part of your community’s culture. Branding includes a logo, name, colors, signage and more, and visually draws people into your dining room, bistros and coffee shops.

Customized, restaurant-style brands that residents won’t find anywhere else generate excitement within your community.

Branding also helps you in your sales and marketing efforts. For example, when prospective residents and their loved ones tour your community, it makes a lasting impression when you have unique and custom brands.

Plus, good branding in your dining area provides an excellent opportunity to take quality photos that can be included in brochures and other promotional materials.


Dining should be one of the best parts of the day for your residents. By collecting resident feedback, offering menu variety, putting on events, and developing unique brands, you can customize your dining experience to best serve your residents. This customized approach to food and dining can be a differentiator for your community that improves resident satisfaction and boosts occupancy.

Dirk Noteboom is president of healthcare culinary and senior living for HHS. He brings more than 30 years of progressive and diverse experience as a registered dietitian to the company, which he joined in 2013. Over the course of his career, Noteboom has held a variety of leadership roles in the acute care and senior living space. He graduated from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA, with a Bachelor of Science degree in dietetics.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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