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The Nutrients Your Loved One Needs

Create a plate of healthy food that nourishes the body

Place Setting and Plate, Pie Chart, Healthy

Tamara Staples, Getty Images

En español

As a family caregiver, you have a lot on your plates — both proverbial and literal. You know your loved one needs high-quality daily meals that balance fiber, healthy fats, carbohydrates, protein, calories and the harder-to-assess invisible ingredients, vitamins and minerals. But how much is enough? Wondering if you’re hitting the nutritional mark can stress the chef.

A good question. Most of us get all the nutrients we need from a healthy diet, but after age 50 the wiggle room of youth begins to shrink and the ability to absorb vitamins from food slowly diminishes. Vitamin and mineral shortages can have serious consequences.

The best prevention is to learn to spot the signs of malnutrition in aging people and serve meals that are nutrient-dense, packed with vitamins, fiber, complex carbohydrates and protein —  much of it plant-based.

Creating Nutritious Meals: Step by Step

Step 1. Stock the fridge and pantry

Take a farm-to-table approach that focuses on minimally processed foods. On your list:

  • Non-farmed seafood
  • Lean meats, fish, eggs, beans and nuts
  • Fresh or frozen produce in a rainbow of colors Frozen or fresh, they have the same nutrients  
  • Canned produce packed in juice or water
  • Dairy products such as plain yogurt, kefir, skim milk, cream and low-fat cheese
  • Whole grains such as quinoa, barley, oats, black or brown rice and millet
  • 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain bread


  • Processed food
  • Baked goods made with refined flour
  • High-sodium foods
  • Soft drinks, juice and high-sugar foods

Know before you go:

  • Before shopping, check out AARP’s heart-healthy recipes.
  • Read labels. Preservatives and other food additives can cause allergies or sensitivities at any age.

Some fruits and vegetables take in more pesticides than others. The Environmental Working Group issues an annual Dirty Dozen list — foods it recommends buying organic. The Clean Fifteen items contain the least pesticides.

Dirty Dozen

most pesticides
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes

Clean Fifteen

least pestisides

  • Avocados
  • Pineapple
  • Cabbage
  • Onion
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Papaya
  • Asparagus
  • Mango
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit
Plate of food showing healthy servings


Step 2. Create a plate

Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s revamped food pyramid, MyPlate.

1. Picture the plate divided into quarters. 

2. Cover most of a half with cooked or raw, high- fiber, colorful and dark green vegetables, leaving enough space for a healthy serving of fruit. Five servings a day reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. Fiber slows digestion and prevents blood sugar spikes.

3. Fill a scant quarter of the plate with lean protein, as wide and thick as a deck of cards. Fish, poultry, meats, tofu, eggs, nuts and nut butters provide the nutrients needed to build and repair cells, deliver energy, and help create enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Serve fish twice a week.

4. The last — slightly larger — quarter-plate is for whole grains, such as barley, brown rice, 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain bread, oatmeal, quinoa and beans with brown rice. (Double win: Quinoa and beans with brown rice form a whole protein when eaten in the same day and can be counted as either grain or protein.) Low glycemic, complex carbs provide energy without spiking blood sugar and help reduce insulin resistance and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. Healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as those found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, avocados and olive oil, should be an everyday thing. The recommended range is 3-6 teaspoons. The USDA advises that fat account for between 20 and 35 percent of total calories eaten. Less than 10 percent should be saturated—7 percent for those with high LDL cholesterol.

Sources of good oils:

  • Olive
  • Safflower
  • Avocado
  • Canola
  • Fish oil
  • Nuts

For flavor, use a dash of walnut or sesame oil.

Unhealthy fats include:

  • Animal fat
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Stick and tub margarines
  • Shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated oils/trans fats

Is coconut oil good or bad? There have been no long-term studies of how coconut oil affects human cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends holding off on coconut oil because it contains saturated fat, which shouldn’t exceed 13 grams — about a tablespoon — a day.

Step 3. Include calcium

Serve meal with low-fat milk, no-sugar-added yogurt, kefir, cheese or other dairy product. If your loved one cannot eat dairy, include high-calcium veggies like kale and broccoli, and ask the doctor about adding a calcium supplement.

Step 4. Mix it up

Once you’re familiar with portion size, likes and dislikes, you can mix it up. Add almonds to green beans, fruit to salad, tzatziki to chicken, rice to black beans, green onions and apple to quinoa. To make a good meal great and add more nutrients, use spices, herbs, lemons, limes, shallots and garlic.

Step 5. Don't forget some sweets

Celebrations and treats add sweetness to life. Look for recipes such as grilled peaches with pureed raspberries, and no-sugar-added fruit pie with walnut crust, that let you and your loved one enjoy a reasonably healthy splurge.

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