Mealtimes are a delicious focus for daily life at Barchester Healthcare’s Winchester House Care Home, as Sue Dunk discovered when she joined one resident and his family for lunch
When a colleague told me about the amazing food his Grandad was enjoying at the care home where he has lived since 2013 I decided I should pay a visit and judge for myself!
Winchester House is situated just outside the village of Wouldham, near Rochester, Kent and provides general nursing and dementia care across five separate units within the home. Food is freshly cooked on the premises and the menu is varied and enticing, prepared by a team of dedicated chefs who receive ongoing training.
Sue Simmonds, who joined Barchester Healthcare in 2009 and has been the General Manager at Winchester House for seven years, says the care home prides itself on the menus it offers and the food it serves on a daily basis, seeing nutrition and hydration as vital for enhancing the lives of the residents.
“When I first came here there was a tendency to use supplements for anyone whose weight was a concern,” says Sue. “However I’m a great believer in the power of good nutrition and wasted no time in introducing a Food First policy.
“We try as much as possible to fortify foods naturally, and serve lots of smoothies and high calorie snacks, for example. High protein milk powder can be useful: we add it to the smoothies to make them high calorie but not too thick or filling so as not to dampen the residents’ appetites.”
Anyone who is at high risk of under-nutrition is weighed every week and a specific care plan is put in place to cover their nutritional needs. “With those at medium risk, we focus on encouraging intake – that’s one of the reasons the menu is so varied,” says Sue.
Head Chef Fran Bannister came to Winchester House almost eight years ago and loves treating the residents to appetizing home-cooked meals that are full of flavour and nourishment. “In the kitchen we are always trying to make the most of flavours, so that people enjoy every mouthful and manage to eat as much as they need.”
Traditional fare is generally favoured by the residents, but it’s not necessarily just British cuisine that goes down well. “Despite its Italian roots lasagna is of course now a British favourite, which our residents love, and there is also an increasing acceptance of more cosmopolitan flavours and spices,” says Fran. “One of our most popular meals is tagine and couscous – which is packed with flavour!”
All the chefs have training in preparing and presenting suitable meals, snacks and drinks which meet national guidelines for residents suffering from dysphagia – a condition which can of course lead to malnutrition if the person can’t swallow enough calories. “We have really good support from Medway Community SaLT teams and dietitians,” says Sue.
And Fran adds: “We use butter in puréed vegetables, and we do get through a lot of cream!
“Under the Food First approach, instead of relying on products such as Ensure to keep nutritional intake up, people might have two or three high calorie mousses instead.”
In terms of other special dietary requirements, out of 121 residents there is currently only one lady on a gluten free diet – which poses “no problem” for the kitchen team, says Fran – and a few people with diabetes. “Individuals with diabetes are able to choose from the same options as everyone else,” explains Sue. “Once you get to this age maintaining quality of life and enjoyment of good food becomes a priority. Staff do keep an eye out, though, and are careful to ensure no one overdoes it.”
For residents at Winchester House the day starts with a choice of cereals, toast, porridge, cooked or continental breakfast. The cereals are all branded so people recognize the packaging and can relate to eating them in the past. A range of hot and cold dishes is on offer at lunchtime, including two main meal options and a hot and cold dessert, as well as alternatives such as omelettes, jacket potatoes, salads and ploughman’s lunch. Afternoon tea is served with home made cakes, pastries or scones and at suppertime, again, there is a selection of hot and cold meals. Mid-morning, evening and night-time snacks are always available.
The menu is on a four-week rota; it’s tweaked monthly and changed seasonally. Roast dinners, cottage pie, crumbles, sponges and Friday’s fish and chips are the most popular of all, reports Fran. A keen baker, she particularly enjoys surprising residents (and staff too) with specially baked and decorated birthday and celebration cakes.
Hydration is also a priority at Winchester House, with many residents enjoying two or three cups of tea at breakfast, and water, juice or squash available throughout the day. In the heat of summer Fran hands out ice lollies to everyone – staff included.
On the day of my visit five of us sat down for lunch, as my colleague had suggested his parents book in too. The staff had laid a table for us in a quiet area, set with napkins, flowers, wine glasses and a choice of juices. The menu for the day was Chicken Chasseur or Lamb and Cumin Pasty, served with sauté or parsley creamed potato, buttered carrots and broccoli; followed by Strawberry and Peach Clafoutis with Custard or Mississippi Mud Pie.
I must say my pasty was very tasty indeed, with melt-in-the-mouth puff pastry encasing a generous filling of tender minced lamb delicately spiced with cumin; and those that opted for the chicken casserole with red wine, bacon and mushrooms were equally complimentary. As we really couldn’t make up our minds which dessert to plump for the serving staff very kindly gave us some of each! Both were scrumptious, and all was washed down with a glass (or two, for the non-drivers) of wine.
Eighty-five-year-old Pietro Mantegna cleared his plate, declaring his meal “very tasty”; he also enjoyed our company, and that of the various members of staff who stopped by for a little chat. Of Italian descent, Pietro has always appreciated good food and likes to keep the chefs on their toes! Any special requests can usually be accommodated, says Fran.
I asked her where she gets her inspiration from, when introducing new dishes to the menu. “There are monthly residents’ meetings, and we take on board any suggestions that come out of those,” she says, “and we have staff from a number of different cultures who come up with ideas too. For example, we do a virtual cruise every year, ‘visiting’ different countries and sampling their cuisines.” Fran has also been known to take inspiration from TV adverts or cookery programmes if something “looks nice”.
Themed menus are devised around special occasions, such as Saints’ days and the Fourth of July, and residents are encouraged to take part in food-related activities, like the baking club.
There are five separate dining rooms in the home, catering for the different units – two dementia nursing units, a residential dementia unit, general nursing unit and a 15-bed physical disability unit. The food is sent out from the kitchen and plated up from a bain marie in the kitchen area of each dining room. Staff are encouraged to sit at the tables during mealtimes and talk to residents to create an engaging social atmosphere.
Barchester Healthcare is in charge of central purchasing, so individual homes don’t have much autonomy over what they can buy; but as Fran points out, that means the chefs can’t get away with doing a lot of ready prepared stuff, even if they wanted to, and the quality of the fresh food is maintained. “It’s certainly not cheap-end,” she says.
After graduating from Thanet College Fran went to work in a canteen, and that’s when her passion for creating good, wholesome home cooking was born. Her approach to food and mealtimes at Winchester House – wanting to give the residents choice and variety within the parameters of their likes and dislikes – is also partly driven by seeing her Mum being fed (badly) in hospital: “There was no thought given to the individual,” she says.
That’s certainly not a criticism that could be leveled at Winchester House, where each and every resident is supported to get maximum pleasure and nutrition from mealtimes.