Sometimes feeding seniors is no easy task. Caregivers have to balance restricted diets, nutrition and personal preferences, and sometimes those preferences may be years in the making and difficult to shift. Some seniors may even suffer from a loss of appetite or decreased sense of smell or taste, making fulfilling their nutrient needs even more difficult.
Fortunately, dietitian-recommended solutions are available that can help make balanced nutrition easy to digest, helping caregivers avoid fights at mealtime and provide the seniors they love with the nutrition they need.
The basics of nutrition
Feeding picky seniors can be tough. The good news is nutrition recommendations from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the same for all Americans, including those of advanced age and those with special diets: a foundation of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and dairy with minimal sodium, added sugars and saturated fat. Following these recommendations also accounts for diet-related conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. In fact, the diets most seniors should follow are the same diets we should all follow to be healthy.
However, if certain vegetables, fruits and grains are unfamiliar, they can be tricky to introduce into a routine, especially late in life. Some seniors might be adverse to trying vegetables they have never tasted before, which can be frustrating for caregivers trying to help a loved one get the nutrition they need. We asked a dietitian for recommendations for painless strategies on how caregivers can introduce new and unfamiliar foods to seniors.
Strategies for introducing nutrient-dense foods
While healthy foods may be easy to identify, they may not be familiar to all seniors, especially if they grew up on sodium-heavy pre-prepared meals or high-fat proteins. Luckily, three dietitian-recommended strategies can help make meal time less painful, according to Whitney Linsenmeyer, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University.
- Offer new foods in smaller portions alongside familiar foods
The foods many seniors have eaten throughout their lifetimes may not be the healthiest choices. Introducing new foods can be challenging, especially if someone is set in their culinary ways. But offering a small bit of a new food alongside a familiar food can make it easier to swallow. For example, Linsenmeyer suggests serving a small portion of green beans next to a familiar comfort food like potatoes.
- Incorporate new foods into familiar foods
Sometimes new foods stick out on the plate and may look intimidating or unappetizing. Another way to introduce unfamiliar foods is to incorporate them into a more familiar dish. For example, finely chop mushrooms or zucchini and cook them into a red spaghetti sauce. The meal is already palatable but more nutritious with the additions.
- See if multivitamins are the right choice
If caregivers continue to have trouble finding a nutritional balance for seniors, it may be time to look into supplements or multivitamins. Discuss with their physician or dietitian if it might be the right choice for their individual needs.
Mitigating appetite loss
Becoming a picky eater may be due to a loss of smell, which can subsequently affect appetite. Changes in taste are common as we age, according to Linsenmeyer, and a loss of taste and smell can be an ongoing symptom of COVID-19, occasionally creating long-term changes. When foods are no longer appetizing, it can lead to diet changes that may be hard for caregivers to manage.
“If the concern is loss of interest in eating, oftentimes the risk is unintended weight loss or malnutrition,” Linsenmeyer said, “in which case energy-dense foods, nutritional supplements and a multivitamin may be warranted.” .
One strategy to help avoid negative effects of appetite loss is to pay attention to what times throughout the day appetites may be higher or lower. If caregivers notice an increase in appetite in the afternoon, for example, try to have food prepared for that time.
“Unless you have specific needs to eat at certain times of the day (e.g., diabetes), it is perfectly fine to use those hunger cues,” she said.
If the appetite loss persists, caregivers should bring up their concerns to their physician or dietitian. In some cases, medications may be recommended to increase appetite.
Finding go-to foods
Caregivers, like many Americans, often struggle to find time for creating nutritious meals that seniors will enjoy. Finding go-to, nutrient-dense foods can help ease the stress of making healthy meals while avoiding reliance on high-sodium prepared food or takeout.
One option for caregivers are soups and stews, which can be a quick and easy way to enjoy vegetables and fiber-rich beans or legumes. Plus, soups can be prepared from scratch and frozen for future use. Low-sodium canned soups can also be found in the supermarket to make for easy-to-prepare meals.
Linsenmeyer added that soups and other liquid foods may end up being more palatable for some seniors.
“If liquid meals are easier to manage than solid meals, a smoothie can be an excellent vehicle for nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables or plain yogurt.”
Like soups, smoothies are easy to prep ahead of time and have ready when needed. They can also be great for “sneaking in” healthier foods. Try adding spinach to a smoothie with green apples and bananas, or sneak in some ginger in a smoothie with orange juice and mango. Getting in these healthy foods alongside more familiar-tasting ones may create less strife at mealtime.
Feeding with care
Providing the best care possible means trying to create balanced and nutritious meals, which can be a point of stress for caregivers. But creating healthy meals doesn’t have to mean automatically throwing preferences to the wayside.
Avoid making drastic diet changes all at once and find compromises by incrementally introducing new foods alongside familiar ones. Try finding go-to favorite recipes like soups and smoothies. And try providing meals on a schedule that corresponds with high-appetite periods. These small strategies can all add up to make a big difference in mood when it comes to eating.