Lisa Downs is the kitchen manager of the Arvida Olive Tree. Downs’ early working career was in partnership with her husband on their dairy farms.

While the farm and family filled most of Downs’ day, her passion for all things food and cooking were always in the background. When it was time to sell the farm, it was Downs’ time to focus on her career goals.

Downs began her paid cooking career in the residential care industry as a kitchen hand, and it was there that Lisa began to understand what it meant to people to lose control over their choices of food. Downs watched, mainly women, who had cooked their own meals for a lifetime, suddenly trying to adjust to having a meal put in front of them—no choices.

Downs explained, “If I told you we were going to have corned beef for dinner, you would immediately have an expectation of what that will look like, what it will taste like and what will be served with it. Those expectations will be based on how you, or maybe your mother, has cooked and presented that meal, over your lifetime. If I serve it to you looking and smelling different, before you even start to eat it, you will be disappointed.” Imagine having that experience over and over again. Sadly, that is the reality for some people in rest homes all over New Zealand.

Since working for Olive Tree Village, an Arvida Village, Downs has embraced the challenge to transform the dining experience of the residents and see them eating well and actively engaged. Eating well is one of the pillars on which Arvida builds its platform for living well, and it is so much more than simply ensuring people have good nutrition. It is about seeing people enjoy their meal times—the pleasure of a social occasion, where you have some control over what you eat and when you eat it.

Downs leads a team of ten who provide all meals for 48 people in residential care, a daily main meal to 100, and also organising catering for special functions as needed right across the village. Every day, breakfast is served as a buffet where diners can look and choose from a variety of continental breakfast supplies. Fresh and preserved fruit, cereals, yoghurt, toast options and tea and coffee are offered in the dining room or, for those who prefer, in their rooms. Toast is cooked fresh as needed, not prepared and stored. Regular offerings of cooked breakfast are always popular and include a range of familiar favourites.

Main meals are also served fresh to the diners from a bain-marie. The menu always includes two protein options, two starch options and a range of vegetables. Residents can see and smell the food before deciding on what to eat. They have control over what, and how much they eat.

“Our residents can, for example, choose to have a few carrots but plenty of beans if that is what they feel like on that day. Isn’t that what everyone else does every day? This is their home, and they should be able to eat like they are at home.” Residents who have high care needs also have access to snack foods all the time. They may not feel like eating at mealtime, but a refrigerator stocked with individual serves of yoghurt, jellies, fruit, etc., allows them to snack when they feel like it, not according to a schedule.

A recent introduction at Olive Tree is the Pure Foods texture modified options. “Gone are the days when those who needed to have a modified texture diet are faced with scoops of pureed food of various colours served with gravy”. Pure Foods offers a range that tastes the same as the whole food, is the same colour, and if you take the time to use the moulds available, even looks the same shape. Everything from sausages to carrots. “My personal favourite is the broccoli,” said Downs.

Special occasions are also a feature of the dining service that Downs offers and really enjoys presenting to the residents. “We had a KFC day, for example, where we prepared everything and served it just like you would if you were buying it from the store. Although, of course, I did not have the secret herbs and spices, but ours tasted pretty good.” Recently a Chinese food day was enjoyed; Downs and the team cooked ginger beef, sweet and sour pork, egg foo yong, fried rice, and served it all in takeaway containers. The meal was accompanied by fortune cookies and chopsticks even.

Downs is self-taught, and among the skills she has picked up is a real flair for cake decorating. An annual feature that residents, staff and visitors alike look forward to, is the Christmas cake. “My food philosophy is simple—food is central to home life, this is our residents’ home, and my passion is to see them enjoying their meal in the same way I like to see my friends and family enjoy a meal I serve at home”.

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