Creating Appetizing Meals for Seniors

Home care experts share tips for National Nutrition Month

Good nutrition is vital for the health and well-being of older adults. Yet when it comes to eating well, this time of life brings challenges. Disabilities, chronic health conditions and medications can all affect the appetite. Taste and smell often decline. Missing teeth, uncomfortable dentures and digestive problems can make eating uncomfortable. And for many with Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, MS or stroke, eating is more of a challenge than a pleasure.

For all these reasons, seniors are at greater risk of nutritional deficiencies. They may lose a dangerous amount of weight, or gain too much weight. How can you encourage older loved ones to improve their diet? Here are some tips from in-home care experts on how to tempt your loved one’s appetite and help them follow a healthy menu.

Prepare your loved one’s favorite foods. This might seem obvious, but sometimes as we focus on nutritional requirements and dietary restrictions, attention to personal preferences falls by the wayside. In-home caregivers know that learning the preferences of senior clients is an important first step to preparing tempting meals. If your loved one is on a soft, low-salt, low-fat, gluten-free or other modified diet, you will need to be creative in preparing modified versions of their favorite dishes. You can find specialized food products at the grocery store. For home cooking, check out recipe collections on the websites of the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the National Parkinson Foundation and other health organizations.

Involve your loved one in meal planning and preparation. It might seem easier to do all the shopping and cooking yourself, but being part of the process is empowering for your loved one and has been shown to improve the appetite. Professional in-home caregivers are trained to plan and prepare meals that meet their clients’ nutritional needs, and they also know that including senior clients in the process creates more interest in food and eating. For seniors with mobility or cognitive challenges who spend much of the time at home, a trip to the market can be a real treat—and in-home caregivers provide the supervision and support to make it happen. Getting a little exercise while filling the shopping cart with selections from pyramids of produce and colorful packages provides an appetite boost.

Adjust seasonings for the senior palate. As we grow older, our sense of taste declines, as does the sense of smell. Enhance the flavors and aroma of foods with herbs, marinades, dressings and varied textures. But remember that as we grow older, we may have sensitivity to foods that are too spicy, sweet, sour, hot or cold. In-home caregivers work with the care team to accommodate sensitivities and to adapt recipes with alternatives to undesirable ingredients such as added salt and sugar.

Create a beautiful table setting. How our food looks influences appetite. Pamper your loved one with an attractive place setting, fresh flowers or a centerpiece and attractive garnishes. Home care experts also recommend increasing color contrast between the table or tablecloth and dining utensils to provide greater cues for people with diminished vision or dementia. And remember that while low, romantic lighting appeals to us in our younger years, it may not allow seniors to see their food! Reports one in-home caregiver, "My client loves the elegance of a candlelight supper—but I leave some lights on, as well!"

Follow the healthcare provider’s instructions for diners who have chewing or swallowing difficulties. If a condition such as stroke, Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer’s disease make it difficult for your loved one to eat safely, discuss food choices and preparation with the doctor, occupational therapist, speech-language therapist and other involved healthcare providers. Home health aides can prepare soft foods and liquid dietary supplements for clients who have a swallowing disorder, assist with feeding, and provide a nonjudgmental, supportive presence during meals. Seniors who have physical limitations also may use adaptive devices such as large-handled spoons, nonskid plates and tableware with extra contrast.

Join your loved one for meals. One of the nicest appetite boosters is a meal companion! Studies show that seniors who eat alone are much less likely to eat a nutritious diet. Isolation leads to loneliness and depression, decreasing the appetite and making it more likely that we will reach for junk food with empty calories. When you can’t eat with your loved one, encourage him or her to set up a regular lunch date with a friend. Look into congregate meals at the local senior center. For many seniors, an in-home caregiver provides welcome companionship during meals.

Stock the pantry and refrigerator with healthy munchies. If your loved one tends to "graze" through the day rather than eat much at meals, this isn’t bad: Nutritionists tell us that eating a number of smaller meals through the day can be a healthy nutrition strategy. But those nibbles and noshes should meet nutritional needs and special dietary restrictions the same as a sit-down dinner. Yes, those potato chips are still too salty even if we eat them standing up! As in-home caregivers plan meals for clients, healthy between-meal snacks are also on the shopping list.

What if none of these ideas work? If, despite all your efforts, your loved one isn’t eating well and you don’t know why, it’s time to speak with the healthcare provider. Sudden loss of appetite may be a sign of an undiagnosed health problem.

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.