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Thought for food

A new range of foods, designed particularly for the older consumer, was and is based on the dining preferences of Dorset diners in Christchurch. Michael Handy found out more.

 

Grace Bryant with the ingredients for an apple crumble

According to research recently carried out in Dorset, one in seven people, who live in the county and who are aged over 75 and are living at home, suffers from malnutrition. This stark figure can be explained by a number of factors: the different nutrition requirements of older people, not wanting the bother of cooking for one, difficulty with eating certain harder foods, existing meals on wheels becoming too expensive and also coming in portions too large for an older consumer to eat in one sitting.
The effects of malnutrition on an individual are huge: reduced mobility with the knock-on effect of increased isolation, reduced energy requiring increased heating bills and increased susceptibility to illness. These individual problems ultimately also lead to increased costs in social and medical care.
These facts, allied to her experience in the food industry and her own experience of caring for her mother, led Elizabeth Jones to found ‘on the menu’: a company which provides ready-to-cook frozen meals which are nutritionally targeted at older people and whose range is geared to the tastes of that age group. The portion sizes are designed to be small enough that nothing is left, but sufficiently packed with protein that, even in a smaller portion, the meals provides similar nutrition to a much larger meal.
‘One of the issues as we get older,’ Elizabeth says, ‘is that we become less active and more sedentary. One of the key factors for remaining mobile is muscle integrity. If we don’t get enough protein, mobility is impaired.’
As well as targeting the meals themselves at older people, a lot of thought had to be put into how to package the meals – both in terms of how easy it is to read and also how easy it is to open. Food packaging is not always the clearest to read, but through bold colours and simple typography, the packs are both very easy to spot and to read. Historically, ready meals have also been far from easy to open, which is especially important when the contents come steaming hot from the microwave and when some customers may have impaired grip-strength. ‘We have a big pull-tab on the film on top of the packaging to make it easier to open.’
While all the above is vital in terms of delivering what Elizabeth Jones would like those eating the meals to get out of the meal, as the brand’s name implies, the key factor as to whether these meals are bought and eaten comes down to what is in them. Enter another member of the ‘on the menu’ team, Grace Bryant, RGN.
Elizabeth explains: ‘Grace works on the initial recipe development by asking research groups what kind of food they like to eat and then she creates a recipe for that meal. Because of her work in Highcliffe, she is on the front line and is constantly aware of issues of digestion and the like.’

A cooked beef and ale casserole with broccoli florets and baby potatoes

In addition to catering for dinner parties and special occasions, Grace cooks for over three hundred seniors a week in Highcliffe and Ashley Lunch Clubs. As a coeliac herself, she is acutely aware of the requirements of those with allergens and a range of dietary requirements and keeps her cooking free of gluten where possible.
Thanks to her nursing training she also understands the health challenges of older people and takes heart conditions, cancer, digestive difficulties and dental fixtures into consideration when planning the menu. Grace puts a lot of work into ensuring both that food is tender and also that it was sufficiently flavoursome without being packed with salt and fat. ‘What I thought,’ Grace remembers, ‘is that people don’t want a big, rich meal; it just is not what they need.’
What they do want and need, however, is taste and nutrition. Grace packs her meals with vegetables and herbs, both for flavour but also to ensure that each meal – as small as the portion size is – still represents one of the consumer’s five-a-day fruit and vegetable requirements.
Grace is always conscious that for food to be ‘good’ all round, it needs to be easy to digest as well. ‘What I have learned through experience is,’ she says, ‘that some foods have “Digestive repercussions”.’
The final issue Elizabeth Jones has to consider in terms of the range of food she sells is ensuring that her target audience can actually get to it. Initial sales show that most of the meals are bought on the days Monday to Friday and in local stores, so she is working hard to ensure not only that the meals are available in smaller local outlets, but also asking stores to be thoughtful as to how they place the food; it should be neither too high to reach, nor so low that it requires a customer to bend over to reach it.
The Christchurch consumer group is still vocal in terms of asking for what it wants; four new meals are being launched in the spring including a pork and apple dish, coq au vin, a liver dish, pot roast chicken and they are also asking for more desserts. On the menu is moving to ‘sous-vide’ slow cook method for very tender meat in the new dishes.
As Grace Bryant says: ‘People like choice in terms of what they eat, but whatever they choose, a meal should be something to look forward to.’
• For more information on stockists and the range, go to www.onthemenufood.com

Six items from the current ‘on the menu’ range

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