Nutrition for Seniors
Eating is one of the most basic of human needs. The United States has an abundance of food, but often our diets are still sometimes lacking in quality.
Being busy is often a reason for choosing fast, convenient, or pre-packaged foods for ourselves and our loved ones.
But, slowing down and involving your loved one in the preparation of food can be a very rewarding and nutritious way to improve the quality of our diets.
For some caregivers, the issue is that our loved ones have trouble eating, chewing, swallowing, etc.
Seniors can have different challenges: a loss of appetite and unhealthy weight loss, problems chewing or swallowing, depression, or a need to reduce fat and sugar with certain chronic conditions.
Tips for Better Elderly Nutrition
- Increase Vegetables and Fruits: Overall, the fiber, vitamins, and enzymes present in fresh plants are best for all of us. Steaming the vegetables so that they are softer for those with dental issues is easy to do. For those who have no trouble chewing, cut up raw vegetables with a tasty dip as a snack or a small meal.
- Make Lunch the big meal of the day: Often by dinner, seniors are too tired to finish meals. Also, some seniors can have more digestive problems that interfere with a good night’s sleep. We all actually need more calories earlier in the day.
- Stay Hydrated: Remember to maintain fluid levels. It is important for all bodily processes to sip some liquids throughout the day. The more fruits and vegetables in our diets, the more naturally hydrated we are.
- Go for the Grain: when making decisions about which breads to choose, always go for the one higher in whole grains. Some people dislike the taste or texture at first. One way to work toward more whole grains is to mix whole grain pasta with regular pasta and gradually increase the whole grain levels.
- Don't Skip Meals: Skipping a meal usually makes someone eat more at the following meal and can drop blood sugars causing dizziness. If not hungry, it is better to eat a little than to skip.
- Eat small Meals More Often: It is better for most seniors to eat 5-6 small meals a day because this can:
- Reduce the highs and lows of insulin levels
- Help seniors who find it painful to eat large meals because of chest congestion or breathing problems
- Encourage more calorie intake for those who have lost their appetites
- Offer more opportunities to socialize and be with others
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- Eat with your loved one: No one likes to eat alone. Often a lack of interest in eating is because a person is bored, lonely, or distracted with tv.
- Increase the Calories: For those who need extra calories or nutrients, adding these in other foods may help.
- Make high calorie drinks like milk shakes. You can add bananas, peanut butter, wheat germ, etc. to a chocolate shake for a nutritious, high calorie drink.
- Eggnog also packs the calories.
- Add dehydrated milk to a bowl of cereal or a creamy casserole. The taste will not change much, but the calories and protein levels will be enhanced.
- Don’t Rush: Meals are not meant to be a quick event. Stay with the person and show patience. Sometimes a rushed person will simply refuse to eat out of a healthy rebellion. For those who eat slowly, reheating food may help them to finish a meal that has cooled.
For Dental, Chewing and Swallowing, or Motor Skill Feeding Problems
- Make chunky stews (like our butternut stew) that are soft and easy to eat.
- Shredded and cutup meats: For those with chewing and swallowing problems, shredded pork and chicken with a nice sauce can really help. If a person needs food cut up, do it before it is served to increase the dignity of the meal.
- Think “Finger Food”: Many seniors have eyesight and motor issues that make eating with a fork, knife and spoon downright difficult. Things like chicken nuggets, cheese sticks, cut up veggies with dip, etc. can help.
- Smoothies can be considered a light meal for breakfast - and are great for adding vitamins and nutrients for people who have trouble chewing or eating.
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Easy Ways to Improve Senior Nutrition
- Soup is on!: For you, it may be easier to cook a huge pot of stew or soup when you have the time - and divide it into smaller portions to freeze. This way you will always have something to offer on busy days.
- Utilize Meals On Wheels: if you are having trouble coming up with the time or money for good meals for a homebound relative, see if you have a Meals On Wheels program in your area. These programs are different throughout the US, but generally serve people age 60+.
- Invite! Family and friends often ask "what can I do to help?" Invite them to sit with your loved one and eat a meal. This is a simple thing most people, including children, can do to help - and offers nourishment in more ways than one! Elderly loneliness can lead to less of an appetite.
Food Ideas for Elderly People
- Vanilla yogurt and fruit
- Whole-grain toast with peanut butter or jam
- Low Fat Mini Quiche
- Simple Smoothie
- Banana Bread and Milk
- Nuts – find those without added sugar and look for low-salt varieties.
- Finger Fruit – grapes, bananas, apple slices, orange wedges are easy to eat.
- Cheese Sticks – made for kids, but a great finger food for all of us! For a less expensive version, cut regular hard cheese (like cheddar) into long strips for eating by hand.
- Vegetables with Dip – green beans, cucumbers sliced long and quartered, broccoli, tomato wedges, peppers sliced long. These are great for those who have trouble handling forks or spoons.
- Whole Grain Pita Bread with Dips: Cut up pita pocket bread into triangles for a softer “chip” to use with dips. If your loved one can handle chewing well, pita bread triangles can be seasoned with a little olive oil and seasonings of your choice and toasted in a 400 degree oven for 5 minutes. Great alternative to store bought chips and much less expensive!
- It is a good idea to serve a main meal earlier in the day for better sleep and digestion.
Soup is On for Dinner or Lunch
Soup with a whole-grain roll can be a hearty meal. Soups can also be made in large quantities to reserve some in the freezer for another day. Many of the soups in our recipe section contain beans, lentils, or large vegetables like squash. All of these types of food are high in fiber, nutritious, filling, and inexpensive.
Other Easy Dinner and Lunch Ideas
Prepared foods to make life easier – especially if your loved one has few diet restrictions:
• Shop for frozen meatballs. You can put these in red sauce for over pasta or microwave some plain for a handy high protein snack.
• Look for frozen vegetables without added sugar or fat that cook right in the bag.
• Single-serving yogurt and cottage cheese products can make a handy lunch or breakfast.
• All the soups and the chicken nuggets in our recipe section can be stored frozen in individual serving sizes for up to two months. Labeled well, these portions can provide quick hearty meals when you don't have time to cook.
Healthy Eating for Seniors
There is so much confusion sometimes about what is good for you and what is not. In general, a good guideline is to stick to foods in their "whole" or natural state. The more a food looks like it did when it was picked, the better! Another good rule of thumb is to eat most of your calories from plant-based foods - nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables, and greens. It is not so much about subtracting the foods that are bad for us like candy and cakes; it is more about adding foods that are healthy and making healthy food the basis of our regular meals. Here are some ideas of what to add:
Greens! – get the organic kind. Apparently, dark leafy greens are often full of pesticides. Greens can be a wonderful late addition to soup for color and taste. Lightly wilted greens can also be added to omelets, stir-fry or casseroles.
- Kale can be included in a salad raw if cut up in very small pieces because it can be hard to chew.
- Spinach – Same advice as above for Kale – spinach offers a good source of multiple vitamins and minerals.
- Dandelion Greens – These are a little bitter – but can easily be added to salads and recipes calling for greens. Good source of calcium.
- Collard Greens – Again – calcium is a big winner here.
Squash – try the many varieties of squash for a healthy, filling, high-fiber meal. You can simply cut an acorn squash in half and place it flesh side down in a pan of water. Cook in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes and serve with unsweetened applebutter. Delicious! Butternut squash can be added to soups to increase fiber and niacin as well!
Mushrooms – these fungi have almost no calories and offer a powerhouse of potassium.
Garlic and onions – These tasty additions to recipes are thought to help reduce bacteria in the body and support a healthy cardiovascular system.
Bananas – easy for seniors to eat and offer great potassium and fiber to fill up when just needing a snack or having a sweet craving.
Berries – These are also often heavily sprayed for pesticides. Shop for organic varieties when possible and/or wash thoroughly. Berries are powerful anti-oxidents and offer a good supply of potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Apples – They are best when eaten with the skin on – but get the organic variety to avoid pesticides. Apples contain a lot of pectin which helps to prevent cholesterol buildup in the lining of blood vessel walls.
Raisins – These guys actually help reduce bacteria in your mouth that can lead to cavities and gum disease. Along with raisins, many types of dried fruits offer a good source of iron.
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Go for the Grain:
Whole grains offer your body more nutrients than the “white” varieties of flour-based foods. When purchasing breads, pasta, muffins, and rolls, substitute “whole wheat” for “white". It takes some getting used to, but most people adjust within a week. Also, try some of the following:
Good old Oatmeal. Get the old-fashioned type and cook in the microwave in a bowl. Add nuts, cinnamon, fresh or dried fruit for variety. Nothing beats it.
Bran cereals offer a lot of fiber to aid in digestion and serve up more nutrients than corn flakes!
Brown and wild rice. These are easy to digest and offer more vitamins and fiber than the white variety.
Other healthy ideas:
- Green Tea: Packed with phytochemicals thought to be good for preventing cancer and heart disease, Green Tea is a wonderful replacement for coffee.
- Egg Subsitute: Try “Egg-Beaters: Egg whites only” – 25 calories per serving and no cholesterol - easy for baked goods and other cooking to replace eggs which can be high in cholesterol and fats!
- Olive Oil: They even make a “light” olive oil now that does not have an “olive-y” taste. You can bake with this and it contains omega-3 fatty acids.
- "Low-Fat" varieties of the foods you like: While we should not be eating too many processed foods like cookies or other snack items, any time you can trade your processed food in for a “Low” fat option, do it. It tends to taste the same anyway.
- Water for Frying: Yes – you can sauté vegetables in water for the basis of soups and other recipes. You won’t be able to tell the difference between carrots and onions sauted in water as opposed to butter if you are doing it for part of a recipe!
- Fish: White fish and tuna are a good source of animal protein without the heavy saturated fats in other meats and provide brain-and-heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
- Nuts have so much going for them! Too many nuts could be a problem because they are high in fat and calories. But, in moderation, they contain the good type of fat that can actually help lower cholesterol and improve your cardiovascular system. In addition, these are thought to be good for brain-health (especially almonds).
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