Nourishment is essential to life. We turn to food for our basic dietary needs like protein, vitamins, minerals and more. But it’s also a source of pleasure and comfort. That can change during our older years when taste buds change, dental health is more challenging, arthritis can make food prep painful, and medications and mood disorders can steal our appetite. And well, we’re often alone and just don’t feel like cooking.
Sound like a loved one you know? All these elements can make food planning for an older loved one feel impossible. But with a little creativity, it can be done and done simply, says Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice nutrition consulting company and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I’m doing this right now for my own mother who will be 90 in February,” Bonci says. “When my father was alive there was a meal on the table every night. For herself? She doesn’t care if there’s dinner. She’s had depression that left her without an appetite. We don't really want her cooking on the stove because she may forget to turn it off. So, there’s a lot! But we’ve found ways to work through it, and she’s eating well.”
Here’s what Bonci recommends.
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Stock up on cereal
Older adults still need the basic essential vitamins and minerals, but they can be harder to get when tastes and eating habits change. It’s tempting to turn to supplements, but food is always better — and supplements can make things worse, Bonci says.
“Zinc is a great example. It’s essential for supporting a healthy immune system and it plays a role in maintaining our sense of taste and smell — so it’s important here. It’s primarily found in animal foods that many older adults just aren’t eating a lot of. But too much zinc, like [what you get] through supplements can interfere with the absorption of other essential nutrients like iron,” she says.
The easiest way to get all those essential micronutrients: a bowl of cereal, Bonci says. “Fortified cereals are great foods to have around. There are dozens of options to choose from. You don’t have to open a can or wrestle with a jar; just open a box. You add milk, so you get fluid, too. And it’s a great snack.”
Opt for soups and smoothies
These types of food check a lot of boxes: They’re nutrient dense. They are rich in fiber. They’re easy to eat. And they provide fluids, which is important because our sense of thirst dims in our older years so it can be harder to stay hydrated. Plus, you need both fluids and fiber to maintain healthy digestion, which also can be more challenging with age.
“They can also be made to suit everyone’s taste. You just blend what they like!” Bonci says.
Bonci's Blender Go-tos
- 2 cups frozen baby spinach
- 1/4 avocado
- A small frozen banana
- 6 oz. pineapple juice
Blend until mixed.
- 1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin puree
- 1 can cannellini beans
- 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Blend until mixed. Warm to taste and then season with salt, pepper or other spices, if desired.
Older adults should get 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight, or at least 20 grams every time they eat. Older adults often fall short for numerous reasons: Animal foods can be harder to cut and chew; changing taste buds (and some medications) can make meat seem bitter and, if they cook for themselves, they may not be inclined to make a chicken breast for one, Bonci says.
Stock up on high-protein foods that are accessible, easy to eat, versatile and flavorful. Bonci recommends cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, nut butters, eggs, frozen meatballs, chopped chicken, tuna pouches (which come in many flavors) and baked tofu (also available in many flavors).
“These foods are easily mixed with other simple staples like rice, pasta, whole-grain bread and simple fruits and vegetables for easy meals that provide the protein you need throughout the day,” Bonci says.
If appetite is waning, you can perk it up by playing to other senses, especially smell, Bonci says. “For instance, just heating some minced garlic, which you can buy ready-made in a tube, in some oil fills the house with a wonderful aroma and stimulates appetite. When you add the meatballs and sauce, everyone wants to eat.”
Adding a pop of color helps too “Red sauce and maybe a little spinach with those meatballs makes the plate more enticing," she says, suggesting "adding pumpkin to oatmeal, so it’s not just beige. Too often the foods older adults are presented with just don’t look that enticing. Color helps.”
Be mindful of taste changes
It can feel like our loved ones have just become pickier with age, but if they seem to turn up their nose at foods they used to love it’s because their tastes have literally changed. “You lose taste buds, and tastes change overtime,” Bonci says. “Typically, sour and bitter tastes become more pronounced. Foods you might not think of as particularly bitter, like chicken, may seem bitter to your older loved one. Adding sweet, salty or savory flavors can mask that, as can some fat (that's why cream makes coffee less bitter).
Fill the freezer
Meal services are popular right now, but many still involve a lot of preparation, so they’re not necessarily easier. If you’re looking for ready-made convenience, Bonci recommends the old-fashioned route: frozen foods. “Frozen meatballs. Frozen fish filets. Frozen peas. Individual meals. There are many frozen options that are simple and taste good and take no more work than putting in the microwave,” she says.
Selene Yeager is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness. Her work has appeared in Shape, Women’s Health, Details, Better Homes & Gardens and Runner’s World.