Updated: Oct 12, 2022
There is rarely a time that the kitchens in Oak Hills Care Center and Edmond Health Care Center are quiet, and Sharita McFee, dietary manager for Oak Hills, knows this well. McFee has been working in industrial kitchens since she was 16.
“I started off as a line worker at Saint Anthony’s,” McFee said. “Worked there for a little bit and became a cook and then realized that I wanted to do more, so I came into long term care, and I’ve been here ever since. About 23 years.”
Throughout her time at Oak Hills, McFee says she’s had family members who have written letters to administrative staff speaking on how Oak Hills has the best smelling and looking meals they’ve seen in multiple facilities.
“I pride myself on my food and my kitchen. We are constantly pushing to go above and beyond the ‘industry standard’.” McFee explained. “I love when residents come up to me and tell me they’re hungry because that means I get to cook for them and see their smiles when they’re full. My philosophy is to let them eat, if they’re hungry, give them something, send everyone everywhere with a full stomach.”
When in a skilled nursing facility, dietary staff need to be able to produce a variety of meals in a variety of textures and nutrient levels. McFee says on an average day her staff are juggling four to five different meal preparations for 3 meals and 3 snacks every day, as well as options that are available at any time during the day.
“On a normal day we will have five or six dietary staff back here,” McFee said. “We have to accommodate for different textures of food, swallowing issues, and nutrient guidelines or restrictions. So, we will usually be cooking for the regular diet, puree, chopped, and mechanical diets, plus any texture problems, allergies, or restrictions.”
One of the largest misconceptions McFee says she’s heard in the past from family members was that there was a lack of variety in the meals being offered to residents. The ability to change her meals on a weekly basis has been one of McFee’s greatest joys as a dietary manager.
“It lets me go out and talk to the residents about what they want.” McFee explained. “As much as I want to cook specific things for them, I have to take a step back and remember, I'm just cooking but they are eating it, and I want them to be happy with what they’re eating.”
Oak Hills resident Barbara Russell cherishes the openness McFee displays to the residents when it comes to meals. “It’s nice to be able to open a door or go up to the window and get whatever I want.” Russell said, smiling. “When they’re here, I can get hamburgers or egg rolls even if it’s not mealtime. When she comes to ask us what we would want to eat, I get so excited because it means I get to help make the menu decisions, not a lot of nursing homes do that.”
McFee says that she tries to incorporate a sense of normalcy to her meals as well, bringing in “Taco Tuesdays” and “Fish Fridays”. Apart from her weekly menu rotations, McFee says she also has seasonal menus to help residents adjust with the changing of the weather.
“During the summer we serve lighter foods,” McFee explained. “You wouldn’t want to walk outside with a full warm belly when its 100 degrees, so we focus on lighter and fresher foods during the summer. The fall and winter come with more hearty meats in meals like chili or stew.”
To be able to keep up with the daily meal and snack times, it takes a hard-working crew on each shift. In the morning’s, there are typically three cooks plus four to five aides. This team will prepare and serve breakfast, lunch, and one snack. During the evening shift, there are usually one or two cooks, with three to four aides preparing and serving dinner and two evening snacks.
“You’d think this was Vegas with how many residents are night owls.” McFee joked. “While we don’t have any dietary staff in the kitchen throughout the night, we will make sure that any resident who wants something to eat during the night is able to grab it and go.
Dietary aides have a wide variety of jobs within the kitchen, setting up trays, preparing drinks and desserts, distributing snacks, and collecting and washing dishes. McFee says her cooks will rotate depending on which meals are being prepared that day.
“I like making the meatloaf, mac and cheese and mashed potatoes,” McFee said. “Everyone’s hands are different, seasonings are different, and sometimes one person can make something better or faster than others, and we will always have the best cook for the meal preparing it.”
In that effort to put the best food forward, McFee is looking to introduce a cafeteria style ordering system where residents will be able to receive made-to-order meals, sides, and snacks. Selective menu items will include chicken tenders, quesadillas, and a variety of sides including vegetables and mashed potatoes.
“I’m here because I like to cook,” McFee explained. “I like when the residents are happy about the food. I love feeding people, I even cook and volunteer at a couple other kitchens so I can keep those smiles rolling. I like the way they smile when they say they're hungry and I can give them a plate. I never want to say no to giving someone food, feed them until they’re full and do it with a smile.”
October 2nd through 8th is Health Care Food Service appreciation week.
From everyone at Voyage Long Term Care, Edmond Health Care center, and Oak Hills Care Center: Thank you to all our dietary managers, cooks and aides!