What is Thrive Dining?

Using Thrive Dining techniques and recipes, chefs transform meals like chicken with rice and vegetables (right) into chicken turnovers (left) for a meal that’s easy to chew and requires no utensils.

Skip the Utensils

Thrive Dining makes eating easier and keeps
meals tasty for people with medical issues

By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Aaron Draper

At Bayside Park retirement community in Emeryville, a table is set for lunch with no utensils in sight. Some residents here are using Thrive Dining, an alternative for people with medical issues that affect coordination, cognition, chewing, or swallowing. The list ranges from stroke or dementia to Parkinson’s disease or
dental problems.

The basic idea behind Thrive Dining is to transform a plate of freshly prepared food into small hors d’oeuvre–like portions that can be eaten by hand. For example, spaghetti becomes pasta triangles held together with egg and breadcrumbs, and chicken with rice and vegetables becomes chicken turnovers. The food retains both flavor and nutrients, with enough variety to offer five-week menu cycles of three meals daily.

Thrive Dining chef Aviad Leizer offers an appetite-stimulating spoonful of lemon sorbet to a resident at Watermark retirement community Bayside Park.

“People finish their food and don’t need anyone to help them. They can enjoy the food everyone else is enjoying,” says chef Aviad Leizer, dining services director at Bayside Park, one of 52 Watermark communities for seniors in 20 states. Chef Aviad adds that this type of finger food was more institutional and processed in the past (think chicken nuggets), but he and other Thrive Dining chefs are preparing meals from scratch. The chefs use a process called “Grind Dining,” in which freshly cooked food is put through a meat grinder to create softer fare that’s easy to chew and gradually dissolves, which helps prevent choking.

To start the meal, diners receive a warm washcloth to wipe their hands, followed by a spoonful of lemon sorbet to stimulate the appetite. The sorbet is served in Chinese-style soup spoons, the one type of utensil that does appear at the table. Removing other utensils is an advantage, as they can be a source of frustration for those who struggle with coordination or even create a risk if used improperly.

Chefs Aviad Leizer (left) and Joseph Ferrer work together to prepare a Thrive Dining meal.

“Being able to manage your own meal brings back independence,” says Bayside staff member Karley Simmons. The difference was notable for Cathy Ward, whose mother Sarah had a hard time managing utensils and was using her hands to eat food intended to be eaten with a knife and fork. Ward says that her mother felt helpless if others tried to feed her. The switch to Thrive Dining, she says, allowed her mom to eat with dignity and at her
own speed.

Thrive also accommodates people who need to eat on the go, like Dr. Denis Winter, formerly a music professor, who has early onset Alzheimer’s. Linda Winter says that the illness causes her husband to walk constantly and that his weight had dropped from 165 to 115 pounds. Dr. Winter, a longtime pescatarian, recently regained some of his appetite, but still has trouble sitting. He lives at Watermark’s Lakeside Park in Oakland, where Thrive Dining chefs prepare fish and vegetable patties that he can eat while walking. Food is available whenever he feels hungry, and Linda Winter notes that her husband has gained some weight. “If he can pick up the food,” she says, “he’s more likely to eat it.” ♦


As we were learning about Thrive Dining, we started thinking about the myriad times in life when having easy-to-eat food can make all the difference: Think traveling, hiking, feeding tots, and of course, parties! We created this recipe for a recent holiday gathering, where it was a hit with people trying to balance plates and drinks while standing around in a crowded room. It works for vegetarians, and you can leave out the breadcrumbs if you want it to be gluten free.

3 tablespoons fine, dry breadcrumbs
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock (or salted water)
1 cup Arborio rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach, chopped, or 4 cups baby spinach, washed and chopped as necessary
12 large eggs
½–1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary or dillweed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1½ cups grated cheese of your choice such as cheddar or jack

Preheat oven to 325°. Lightly oil a 13 x 9–inch baking pan and sprinkle evenly with the breadcrumbs.

Heat the vegetable or chicken stock to boiling. (Note: The stock will provide saltiness to the dish, so if you are using unsalted stock or water, you’ll want to add salt at this time.)

Place rice in an oven-safe baking dish. (You’ll need one with a cover, and a glass dish is best, since you can see the contents without lifting the lid.) Add the cup of boiling stock (or salted water), cover dish, and bake for about 30 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed, then remove from oven and let cool as you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until tender (about 6 minutes). Add minced garlic and sauté another minute until lightly browned. Add spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until leaves have wilted and most liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Mix in the chopped herbs and both cheeses. Mix in the cooled rice and spinach mixtures. Spread the concoction evenly inside the prepared baking pan. (It should be about ¾-inch thick.)

Bake until the torta is lightly browned and cheese is bubbling, about 25–30 minutes.

Cool slightly and then cut the torta into rectangular pieces small enough to pick up by hand. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Edible East Bay’s associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, cooking, and gardens as tools for education and social change. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com and get in touch at rachel(at)edibleeastbay.com.

Aaron Draper is a San Francisco–based commercial photographer who specializes in photographing people and also generates product photography. aarondraper.com