We know that healthy eating can lower the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. But did you know some super foods and how we prepare them can actually help slow the progression of memory decline? There is data to support that eating a diet rich in these foods may help the brain function better and slow memory loss.
Well-Being spoke with Chef Damien Cavicchi, Regional Culinary Director for the Blake Retirement, Assisted Living and Memory Care Communities. The chef’s understanding of how certain foods affect the functions of the brain, including memory and cognition, plays an important role in how he plans and prepares the wide variety of fresh and healthy dishes he serves.
“At The Blake, memory care is a big part of what we do each day,” notes Cavicchi. “Our priority is to make the experience for our residents the same in Memory Care as it is in Independent or Assisted Living, which is to say the same menu, same thoughtful food, activities and attention to detail. Each day we are presented with opportunities to elevate the resident experience through food, from concept to plate. Food is a regular highlight for many of us throughout our lives, and our approach to dining at The Blake is from a place of not only comfort, and of course hospitality, but also health.”
“It’s very important for us to recognize the impact that food can have on physical and mental wellbeing – and what is good for the heart tends to be good for the brain,” Cavicchi explains. “Some of our brain food success stories are raw vegetable salads such as a raw, chopped Broccoli Caesar, Salmon Curry – that’s loaded with Turmeric, Avocado Toast – a runaway success story here at The Blake, fresh Blueberries on everything during the season, and walnuts incorporated into seasonal salads and sauces.”
“There is a balance that we try to achieve when cooking vegetables especially – cooking them until they are tender enough to be palatable to our residents, but also not overcooked. We train our teams in techniques that allow us control of flavor, timing and retention of nutrients. For example, rather than simmer green beans for hours with pork, we cook them briefly in boiling water, stop the cooking process by submerging them in ice water, and then finish them at time of service with a quick sauté in olive oil, diced onions, lemon juice and fresh herbs. The end result is a brightly colored, tender green bean, with lots of flavor and maximum retention of inherent nutrients.”
“Prior to joining the Blake, I didn’t realize how many of us are touched by dementia. I quickly was presented with the importance of the tools that are used to cue residents to eat and drink enough – colorful china and food presentations, finger foods, snacks, and specialized communication. I would never want a resident to eat a burger every day, simply because it is the only familiar food available. We ask ourselves what we can make that is familiar but also nutritionally balanced? These discussions are part of our process for menu planning,” shared Cavicchi.
“A lot of chefs’ careers are about innovating, creating what’s next, what hasn’t been done before. That was the case for me, Cavicchi adds. “But cooking for seniors brings gratification through cooking for others. There’s less of, ‘Here is what we are having. I hope you like it.’ And more of ‘I prepared this for you, because I know you like it.’ Food isn’t always an adventure at this stage in life, maybe more of a familiar friend. When writing menus, I have stacks of notes from our culinary councils, which are full of requests, opinions and emotions. Our menus reflect the input from our residents, foods that are in season and now more than ever, foods that support brain health.”
“My wife loves great food and needs to eat nutritiously, because she is a fitness instructor. She is also intolerant of gluten, dairy and nuts, so cooking for her initially was a challenge, but it taught me that there are so many ways to approach cooking without sacrificing flavor, nutrition and excitement,” says Cavicchi. “I believe, and recent research confirms, that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. Personally, I love meat, but I try to eat mostly vegetables. I’ve seen first hand what attention to diet can do for us, and I have been able to lower my own blood pressure and cholesterol simply by having more awareness of what I eat.”
“For those who cook at home or cook for a senior, I recommend lots of vegetables and cooking with water and less oils. Limit anything that spikes the glycemic index like white flour and sugar. Go with lean protein and limited red meat. If possible, serve salmon once per week. Seek flavor from acid, fresh herbs and spices instead of fats, ham hocks and salt. Go to the Asian market if you’re feeling uninspired, or buy some Thai curry paste. Roast fresh cauliflower and serve it instead of potatoes. Make a green salad that you like every night at dinner – make it a habit. It’s a habit you can live with.”