Dishes and Table Settings Can Prevent Distracted Dining

Learn simple ways to help your aging population focus on their food and eat better.
Handheld sandwich with bun

You prepared their favorite poultry dish, served it on floral pattern china and arranged a beautiful table. To set the mood, you even dimmed the lights and piped in some music. So why didn’t your guests eat well? The perfect meal may not be perfect for an aging or ailing diner. With dishes and table settings, older people sometimes experience visual-spatial difficulties, particularly those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Because people who cannot clearly see their food or are easily distracted don’t eat as well, it’s important to pay attention to the right dishes, table settings and dining room practices. The right choices can improve food intake.

Chicken served on a light brown plate is hard for someone with vision troubles to recognize. Dim lighting adds to the challenge. Although well-intentioned, a cluttered table and loud music in the background are distracting. Taking a step back and observing your meal presentation can help improve how well your guests eat, leading to positive health outcomes, such as less weight loss or nutrition deficiencies.

The value of high-contrast dishes

Think about what it’s like to walk into a dark room wearing sunglasses. Landmarks blend together. Shapes are indistinguishable. Visually challenged guests experience this when chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, yogurt and cottage cheese are served on a light-colored plate.

A Boston University study published in 2004 showed what a difference color contrast can make for diners with visual-cognitive challenges. When Alzheimer’s patients were served food using red dinnerware, they consumed 25 percent more food and 84 percent more liquid. A follow-up study using blue dishware had similar results for food consumption, but less liquid intake.

“You want people to be able to feed themselves for as long as they can,” says Alison Stock, RD, of the Gordon Food Service Nutrition Resource Center. “Dishes with color contrast improves their dining experience and encourages independence.”

Paying attention to the dining environment

Food is more than a source of nutrition, it’s a form of enjoyment. People get excited about going to the dining room, so make it a pleasant experience when they get there, says Amy Kotterman, Hospitality Services Director at United Church Homes in Ohio. She suggests the following:

Reduce clutter. Get extras off the table. Salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders and condiments can be distracting. If used, keep centerpieces simple.
Tune out noise. Turn off the television. If music is played, make it soothing, wordless sound.
Provide sturdy chairs. Wobbly chairs are disturbing. Chairs with armrests aid mobility.
Avoid patterned plates. As with the clutter on the table, dishware with designs can cause confusion.
Let the light in. Bright lighting and natural lighting are best.

Kotterman also recommends limiting utensils. If you know a resident doesn’t have knife-cutting skills, remove the knife to reduce frustration and clutter while promoting safety. In fact, just one utensil at a time, either a fork or spoon, may be most efficient. Placemats to help frame the plate and eating space also can be helpful, she says. If necessary, serving one food at a time won’t overwhelm diners with physical or sensory challenges.

“Individualizing the way we serve food transforms a care community into a home,” Kotterman says. “Person-centered care makes people comfortable and happy. And happy people are better eaters.”

For Gordon Food Service customers, your Customer Development Specialist can help you find colored china, tablecloths, placemats and other tabletop accessories to enhance the dining experience.

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