If you’re concerned the older loved ones in your life or those you care for aren’t getting enough nutrition, there may be a number of reasons. Perhaps grocery shopping or cooking is too difficult, or meals just aren’t as fun to eat alone. Regardless, eating healthy meals is of course incredibly important as we age.
Tammera Karr, a board certified holistic nutritionist in Roseburg, Oregon, and Kristi Von Ruden, a registered and licensed dietitian who plans meals for nursing home residents and geriatric outpatients at Northfield Hospital & Clinics in Northfield, Minnesota, came up with 18 easy, tasty and healthy meal preparation ideas for seniors. (See below.)
Before you get cooking, make sure you keep your senior’s doctor in the loop, and be sure to check with the medical team about food restrictions and recommendations before planning menus.
Meal prep tips for seniors that will make cooking easier
While there is no one tip that will work for everyone, there are a few ideas you can incorporate into your week that will help make cooking easier on you and your older loved one.
- Make a plan and write it down. Sit down on a Sunday and plan out your loved one’s meals for the entire week. This will help you avoid making several trips to the grocery store during a busy work week. Write down the menu for the week and put it in a place where your loved one can easily access it. Knowing ahead of time what is planned will make it less overwhelming for seniors whether they are the ones cooking or not.
- Make meal prep a group project. Enlist your loved one’s help in prepping for the week’s meals. Not only will you get assistance (and company), but your senior will feel more invested in what they are eating and will enjoy having a weekly project to look forward to.
- Prep versatile ingredients for the week. Meal prep is supposed to make your life easier, not more difficult. Instead of trying to prep each meal individually, start by prepping certain foods that make more than one appearance in your senior’s meal plan for the week. For instance, cook enough quinoa for the week or wash and chop vegetables and put them in tightly sealed containers in the refrigerator. This will ensure that no one is starting from zero when they begin cooking the meal.
Healthy and easy meal preparation for seniors
Karr says that “good sources of protein are important with every meal, but especially with breakfast,” as seniors are just beginning their day. While a frequent component of a balanced breakfast, nuts and seeds can be difficult for some seniors to digest, so Karr suggests looking to avocados as a substitute.
- Warm oatmeal and berries. Place frozen or fresh berries in a crockpot at a low heat setting. Add a pat of butter and one serving of old-fashioned oats and water. Cover and cook on low for several hours (or overnight). This will give it the consistency of bread pudding. (The easier option is adding berries to warm oatmeal.)
- A hard-boiled egg. Accompany with a side of fresh fruit and a slice of whole wheat toast.
- Whole grain pancakes or waffles. If you can find one, choose a brand that contains chia seed which Karr says is more stable than flaxseed and contains essential fatty acids and proteins. Then top with fresh berries. For protein, also eat a handful of walnuts or almonds.
- Yogurt parfait. Mix together yogurt, nuts and fruit. It’s a good combo of healthy fat, Vitamin C and carbohydrates.
- Power toast. For healthy fat and some protein, spread peanut butter or almond butter on whole wheat toast. Enjoy fresh fruit on the side.
- Poached egg. Place egg on top of whole wheat toast and steamed asparagus. Top with a small amount of butter.
Karr says that lunch is the ideal meal for loading up on colorful vegetables. Feel free to add leafy greens to any of these meals for additional midday nutrients. Karr advises that lunch should be the most substantial meal of your loved one’s day and suggests steaming or sautéing all vegetables for easy chewing.
- Quinoa salad. Sauté pre-chopped stir-fry vegetables (onion, red pepper, mushrooms). Combine with pine nuts or pecans and cooked quinoa. Toss with Italian salad dressing. Eat fresh, warm or cold. Keeps well refrigerated. Steam or sauté vegetables in olive oil instead of boiling, which drains the nutrients.
- Eggs and red potatoes. Melt a pat of butter in a skillet. Chop up potatoes and add to skillet over a medium heat. Cover skillet for two minutes. Then, pour scrambled eggs over potatoes, add pepper and toss until eggs are hot. Rather than season with salt, which can lead to water retention and high blood pressure, use fresh herbs and spices.
- Cottage fries. Slice parboiled red potatoes. Heat extra virgin olive oil in a skillet and cook the potatoes at a medium heat. Top with leftover vegetables and grated sharp cheddar cheese. Cover, let steam and serve.
- Southwest omelet. Beat two eggs. Put 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. Pour in the egg mixture, and add pepper jack cheese chunks and natural salsa or chili sauce. When eggs are firm, fold and serve with sliced avocado. Tip: Chili and spices help boost diminished taste buds.
- Salmon wrap. Place canned Alaskan boneless skinless salmon on a whole grain wrap. Add chopped avocado, tomatoes, greens and plain yogurt. Wrap tightly, cut in half and serve.
“Research is supporting lower calorie plans with intermittent fasting and high fat for seniors,” says Karr, as this approach helps support brain function and reduce inflammation.
Most dinner menus will call for sautéing vegetables or a protein in a healthy fat such as olive oil, and Karr advises to stay away from canola oil, which has been linked to decreased cognitive function in animal studies. In addition to extra virgin olive oil, she suggests integrating avocado oil into your cooking.
- Baked or grilled Alaskan salmon. Top each steak with tomatoes, sweet onion, dried or fresh basil, chopped garlic and one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Wrap each piece of fish tightly in aluminum foil and place in the oven on a low heat (300 degrees). If the fish is thawed, cook for about 15 minutes. Dinner is ready when the fish is flaky but still moist.
- Lamb and potatoes. (If you can keep some parboiled red potatoes on hand, you can prepare fast and easy meals.) Form ground lamb into small meatballs. Tear fresh basil into slivers, or use a pinch of dried basil. Slice pre-cooked red potatoes into small pieces. Slice a clove of garlic. Warm extra virgin olive oil in a skillet. Sauté garlic and basil on a medium heat for five minutes. Add lamb and brown. Add potatoes; cover for 10 minutes Toss ingredients; add a dash of ground pepper. Cook for an additional five minutes.
- Shrimp and pasta. Heat a pat of butter and one tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan. Add chopped fresh herbs, garlic and a handful of shrimp. Toss and cook until shrimp is done. Place on a bed of pasta and top with chopped fresh tomatoes.
- Liver and fennel. Place liver slices in a skillet with extra virgin olive oil. Top with chopped fennel, ted onion and cabbage. Cover and steam until liver is tender. Serve.
- Beans and rice. Heat up a can of black, pinto or white beans. Serve with brown rice, oats or barley. You can warm the meal in a crockpot and serve later.
- Shrimp and fresh greens. Sauté fresh vegetables in a saucepan (again, you can buy pre-cut veggies) with olive oil. Add cocktail shrimp, which can be bought peeled, cooked and chilled. Serve with a berry vinaigrette salad dressing and lime slices.
- Southwest chicken salad. Cook boneless, skinless chicken breast on a medium heat in a skillet with extra virgin olive oil. Add salsa. Shred chicken and reserve in refrigerator to use for wraps, salad or soup.
What to eat in between meals
Karr recommends incorporating nutritional snacks in between meals such as high-fiber rye crisps with Swiss cheese or guacamole on top. And, while older adults do need to stay well-hydrated, they are better off taking small sips during the day in order to avoid frequent sprints to the bathroom. Karr says that a glass of water kept by their favorite chair is the answer.
To avoid stomach upset, the water should be room temperature or warm. Add in some lemon, lime or a few berries for extra flavor, and they can take small sips all day to stay sufficiently hydrated.
When cooking is no longer an option
Be alert for signs that your senior might not be as handy — or safe — in the kitchen as he once was. Some clues the senior needs help with meal prep and cooking are: spoiled food in the refrigerator, an empty refrigerator, diminished energy or strength lifting dishes in and out of the cupboard, a burner is left on, cutting skills are shaky, pans are burned (signs they were left on the stove too long).
If your older loved one can no longer cook and doesn’t have someone who can cook for them, these companies and organizations help provide meals:
- Meals on Wheels Association of America: Prepares and delivers more than one million meals to seniors each day.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): This is the government food assistance plan once referred to as Food Stamps. Seniors who have trouble affording fresh fruits and vegetables and other food can apply.
- Schwan’s: A national grocery store, delivers frozen meals-breakfast, lunch and dinner-door to door every two weeks.
- Amazon Fresh: Amazon’s grocery delivery for perishable and frozen foods, along with other groceries, which is available to Prime members. Also look at Peapod.com, depending where you live.
- Silver Cuisine: Focused solely on delivering fresh meals to seniors, Silver Cuisine can accommodate many different dietary restrictions and will even deliver nutritious snack options.
- Magic Kitchen: Another online meal delivery service, Magic Kitchen allows you to choose from several dietary types, including senior diets.
- Mom’s Meals: Mom’s Meals has been delivering to people nationwide for over seventeen years and focuses on meals for specific dietary needs, including those of seniors.