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Making the most of mealtimes

by Katrina Phelps

How food is served impacts on consumption.Dining at a seaside restaurant, watching the sun glistening over the water, eating the meal you have ordered off clean porcelain plates with stainless steel cutlery lain out on a pristine white tablecloth is generally an appealing prospect. Swap that for eating luke-warm food that you didn’t choose, from a plastic tray with plastic plates and cutlery while trying to prop yourself up on a hospital bed, and immediately that food is less appealing.

So it may not come as a surprise that an international review suggested that up to 85 per cent of residential aged care residents in developed countries, such as Australia, may be under-nourished.

Annet Hoek says presentation of food and drinks can have an impact on how it is consumed.Annet Hoek says presentation of food and drinks can
have an impact on how it is consumed.

“Food intake is a big problem in this group,” said Dr Annet Hoek, UniSA Lecturer in Nutrition in the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences.

“The context of our dining experience definitely influences how much we eat. Our sense of taste has a big impact on what we eat and drink every day which then impacts on our overall health. But a range of other senses can dictate what we actually eat and how we feel about certain foods.”

Dr Hoek will use her expertise on food to contribute to a project being led by Dr Sandra Ullrich from the School of Nursing and Midwifery about improving food in aged care facilities and hospitals. The project involves working with art and design colleagues in a bid to make the overall dining environment more appealing.

“When you are in hospital or aged care, everything that is normal to you when eating at home with your family - on a nice table, maybe with a candle, with china-wear - everything is taken away,” Dr Hoek said. “You are eating from your bed on a tray table, someone picked the food out for you and you have to eat this.

“We really want to change this. It’s never possible to change it completely to be the same as the home situation but if we can change the environment and the context – everything that we can change easily will lead to better food intake and better quality of health for the elderly and sick.”

This new project stems from work undertaken by Dr Hoek and Dr Ullrich during their PhD research. Dr Ullrich’s recently completed PhD focused on protecting mealtimes in aged care homes and using action to improve nursing practice in nutritional care across two health care organisations.

“Most people, including myself, frequently take the activity of eating food and the mealtime environment for granted,” Dr Ullrich said.

“Protecting the taken-for-granted mealtime activities and environment becomes very important when the elderly enter residential aged care. This is because the elderly are vulnerable to losing the few remaining activities associated with preparing food and the mealtime environment, which in turn diminishes the symbolic values that they associate with mealtimes.

“It is important to protect the mealtime environment in residential aged care facilities and hospitals for the simple reason that people have the right to eat their meals in an environment that is uninterrupted by health care staff performing clinical activities that could be just as easily performed outside of the mealtime period.”

The new project will specifically focus on improving mealtimes for older adults with dysphagia (a swallowing disorder) by re-designing texture-modified foods.

Art and design students from the School of Art, Architecture and Design will be involved in this project and future projects to improve the mealtime environment for residents.

“The designers have a fresh, new outlook on how you could create a nice space around the bed, for instance, to design better trays,” Dr Hoek said. “So there’s a lot of things we can already do with design to improve the meal environment.

“And there are plenty of other options to make foods more attractive, like using appealing menu names and food descriptions, which research has shown can make a big difference to consumer consumption.

“This is a very exciting collaboration.”

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