Seniors live alone for a number of different reasons. For many, lone living begins after a spouse or partner dies or moves into a facility because of illness or diminished capacity. Life and circumstances don’t always allow the option of moving in with family members or friends. And some seniors simply prefer to live by themselves, enjoying the peace and independence of living as one.
But many find that eating alone can be one of the biggest changes and challenges, especially for those who grew up in families and then had families of their own. After years of shopping, cooking, and preparing food for a group of people, they are suddenly forced to scale back.
Here are some tips for helping seniors take care of themselves by eating healthy, balanced meals — while staying safe and engaged.
A Few Ground Rules
Any food that brings an individual good memories and familiar tastes is important and should be incorporated into the meal plan. While it’s important to honor individual preferences and habits when planning meals and eating, there are a few basic rules that apply to most older people.
- Stay hydrated. Unless a senior is on a fluid restriction regimen ordered and overseen by a doctor, it is important to drink fluids regularly throughout the day.
- Don’t skip meals. Skipping a meal usually causes a person to eat more at the following meal and can also cause blood sugars to drop, resulting in dizziness. If not hungry, it is better to eat a little than to skip a meal or snack.
- Get snacking. For most seniors, it is best to eat three meals and two or three small snacks a day.
- Set the table. Make meals a special time of day in which eating well becomes an important part of self-care. To that end, take the time to arrange an attractive table setting complete with tablecloth, napkins, and nice dishes and silverware.
Keep the Kitchen Safe and Useful
Seniors need a working kitchen that is easy to move around in, with all appliances easily accessible and in good working condition. Food, dishes, and utensils should be organized and easy to access. Expiration dates should be checked regularly on all perishable items in cabinets, refrigerators, and freezers — and expired food thrown out.
Appliances should also be selected and stored with safety and convenience in mind. A whistling kettle may be helpful to remind seniors when the water heating on a burner is boiling. A timer on the stove can remind them when the food in the oven is ready. An easy to use microwave may be useful for warming and cooking foods. A toaster is a staple in most households for toast and bagels. A crockpot may be a big help for slow-cooking meals overnight. A toaster oven with a timer bell is also a good idea for heating food for one person.
Arrange for Grocery Shopping
Be mindful of whether the senior has the ability to drive or can arrange transportation to do his or her own grocery shopping.
For family members or other caregivers, accompanying seniors to the grocery store can be fun and provide valuable information about their current food preferences. It may also be a valuable way to emphasize their independence and abilities to choose what they will eat and prepare.
If shopping is a challenge, check into home delivery services; many grocery stores offer free or low-cost delivery options for seniors.
Keep Meals Simple
Many researchers tout the benefits of beginning the day with breakfast—from increasing mind and body functioning to controlling or maintaining weight. And that first meal can be most important for older adults, many of whom are at risk for fatigue, metabolic fluctuations, and malnutrition.
A number of healthy breakfast options are both quick and easy to prepare.
- 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 cook overnight to get the consistency of bread pudding. An even easier option is to add berries to warm oatmeal.
- Hard-boiled eggs. Eggs are good source of protein. Add some fresh fruit and a slice of whole wheat toast.
- Whole grain pancakes or waffles. Pancakes and waffles can be purchased already prepared and frozen, then toasted. For extra fiber, choose a brand that contains flax. Top with fresh berries. For protein, add a handful of walnuts or almonds.
- Yogurt parfaits. Layer a combination of yogurt, nuts, and fruit.
- Power toast. For healthy fat and some protein, spread peanut butter or almond butter on whole wheat toast.
- Cereal, milk, and fruit. Choose a cereal low in sugar – for example, Cheerios or Corn Flakes.
Some experts say that lunch should be the main meal of the day with a dinner that is lighter and easier to digest—and that may be particularly true for older people whose digestion has slowed. Here are some ideas for easy to prepare lunches and dinners.
- Soups and salads. Look for prepared soups that contain protein and vegetables and are low in sodium. A pot of homemade soup using a variety of vegetables, with chicken or beans added for protein can be very satisfying and last for a few days. A salad made of fresh vegetables is always a good addition. Vegetables can be cut up and kept in plastic bags, ready-to-eat as healthy snacks.
- Sandwiches. Choose whole wheat bread and low sodium meats, tuna, and chicken; add cheese, lettuce and tomato and serve with a fruit salad.
- Ready-to-eat meals. The deli counters in many grocery stores offer ready-to-eat meals that can easily be warmed and served. Look for a meal complete with protein (meat/chicken/fish/tofu), a starch (rice/potato/pasta), and vegetables (all vegetables are healthy). Follow heating instructions carefully.
- Frozen meals. There are many healthy frozen meals on the market; look for those that are low in sodium, fat, and sugar.
- Local restaurant deliveries. Look for food deliver services or local restaurants that deliver meals. This can introduce variety and also affords a break from preparing a meal.
Additional Ideas for Adding Protein to Your Diet
Protein is an essential building block for the body. Here are some ways to incorporate more protein into your diet.
- Baked chicken or roast meat slice thinly for a sandwich
- Add meat to a soup
- Put it in a green salad as a topping
- Use in a stir-fry
- In a casserole (i.e. chicken pot pie)
- Cut into small pieces, add a roux sauce (white sauce made with butter, flour and liquid) and serve over a whole grain with a side of veggies
- Use in quesadillas, tacos, burritos, or any other similar dish
- Cut cooked chicken into small chunks, add ingredients to make a chicken salad (tasty on a sandwich)
- Use chicken bones to make chicken stock
- Ground meat or meatloaf
When preparing ground meat for meatloaf (or something simlar), mix up double the amount and freeze half to use later for:
- Stuffed peppers
- Juicy hamburgers
- Pasta sauce (add a jar of red sauce and serve over pasta)
- Cooked vegetables
- Add to your morning omelet or as a side with any other egg dish
- Use in wraps
- Make a frittata
- Use as a pizza topping
- Cooked with black, kidney, or similar beans
- Reheat, cook an egg, put on a corn tortilla, add salsa and you have a Huevos Rancheros-style breakfast
- Use in quesadillas, tacos, burritos or any other similar dish
- Reheat with a little water, mash, season to taste, then use as a dip, or make your own nachos by putting “refried” beans onto corn chips, adding a little grated cheese and baking
- Add to cooked Pasta
- Make a pasta Frittata
- Add to pasta salad
- Add to Mac and cheese