Key Takeaways

  • Understanding why older adults attend congregate meal programs is critical to building a sustainable program.

  • Two recent NCOA webinars detailed ways to "power up" congregate meal programs.

  • Shared ideas include ways to create a welcoming space and how to make meals more enticing.

The national Senior Nutrition Program has been serving older adults healthy meals in congregate group settings for over 50 years. Opportunities for social engagement, information on healthy aging, and meaningful volunteer roles are just some of the other benefits of congregate meal programs, all of which contribute to the health and well-being of older adults across the country.

Over time, congregate meal programs have changed from stand-alone locations to innovative meal sites in senior centers, restaurants, libraries, office complexes, food trucks in the park, and tailgate parties in the parking lot. With this, many sites are experiencing growth.

Unfortunately, others have faced a downward trend in participation. What are the reasons for this, and how can we find new ways to meet participants’ expectations? Understanding why older adults attend congregate meal programs is critical to building a sustainable program.

Recently, we teamed up with NCOA to provide two webinars discussing these very issues and sharing insights on how to “power up” your congregate meal program. Here are some tips to get you started!

How to create a welcoming space for older adults to participate

A welcoming atmosphere is the most crucial meal program attribute to recruiting and retaining older adults. Creating an environment where people feel accepted and comfortable goes a long way. You can take simple steps to create a warm and welcoming environment:

  • Assign a greeter at your program’s entrance to welcome participants with a friendly hello and assist with seating. Choose someone who has a great smile and natural sociability. Remember, the greeter is the participant’s first impression of your program and sets the tone for the rest of the experience!
  • Create an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality with simple decorations, both for special occasions and all year long. Of course, be sure to consider the religious and cultural needs of your program’s participants.
  • Consider ways to encourage conversation among participants such as using nametags, icebreaker games, or conversational cards at each congregate table.
  • Encourage participants to bring their friends along to help them feel at ease. 
  • Send notes to new program participants thanking them for attending and encouraging them to return. And, if a participant misses a few days, have someone call and check on them.
  • Include diversity among your staff and volunteers to help others of like backgrounds feel comfortable and included.

Ways to make your meals for older adults delicious

Environment is not the only way you can look to improve your congregate meal program. The meal itself is also important. Senior nutrition programs are required to ensure menus meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) and Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) to help contribute to healthy and nutritious diets. Programs should also strive to serve meals that please the palates of their clients. After all, people must eat the food for it to be nutritious. Small meal enhancements can deliver significant results. Consider the following to enhance quality and taste:

  • Allow participants to contribute to menu development through committee feedback or written surveys.
  • Provide menu choices, if feasible. Consider starting small by offering a choice of dessert or salad rather than the main course.
  • Try adding on-trend menu concepts (e.g., grain bowls) to generate interest and excitement.
  • Offer healthy choices that deliver on taste, including vegetarian and vegan offerings. Include herbs as a seasoning to enhance flavor without adding sodium.
  • Include cultural cuisine and international flavors to make the menu flavorful and represent the diverse backgrounds of your participants.
  • Don’t forget to offer the comfort foods (e.g., beef pot roast) that are still a favorite among seniors.
  • Offer fresh menu selections when possible (e.g., fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh baked goods, freshly brewed coffee).

Other ways you can make your congregate program shine

The webinar recording and handouts have more information about what you can do to recruit and retain congregate meal participants. You can find them at NCOA Connect:

To learn more about how to make your congregate program shine, visit the Administration for Community Living’s Nutrition and Aging Resource Center.

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