Fuel the Body, Warm the Heart: Make Healthy Meals for Your Aging Loved One a Tradition in the New Year

Much more than just fuel for the body, food is inherently connected to our emotions, memories, and how we feel about ourselves. Cooking together is a way to bond more deeply with loved ones—mealtimes have always been at the root of family togetherness. We celebrate milestones and accomplishments by indulging in a good home-cooked meal, and invite family and friends to connect while enjoying their favorite dish. As the holiday season winds down, and 2017 begins, most of us resolve to make this year even better than the last. This usually includes promises of spending more time with family and eating healthier meals.

healthy meals for aging loved onesMuch more than just fuel for the body, food is inherently connected to our emotions, memories, and how we feel about ourselves. Cooking together is a way to bond more deeply with loved ones—mealtimes have always been at the root of family togetherness. We celebrate milestones and accomplishments by indulging in a good home-cooked meal, and invite family and friends to connect while enjoying their favorite dish. As the holiday season winds down, and 2017 begins, most of us resolve to make this year even better than the last. This usually includes promises of spending more time with family and eating healthier meals.
While the new year invites us all to turn over a new leaf, life will inevitably go back to normal and it can be difficult to keep our New Year’s resolutions when our schedules get busy again with work, family, and relationships. Still, as caregivers, we know that honoring our commitments is especially important when they relate to our aging loved ones—and finding realistic ways to stick to our goals can help make the new year all the more fulfilling for them. Creating new traditions around food can help your loved one look forward to mealtimes all year long.

Start New Food Traditions with Your Aging Loved One

The kitchen has always been a cozy spot, warmed by ovens and steaming pots, where deep family connections are made. It’s a place where you and your loved ones can gather to share news, relax, and fill hungry bellies. To create new mealtime traditions that actually last throughout the year, consider these aspects before you start cooking up a storm.

Set Up a Schedule

Deciding on a realistic cooking schedule will help you stick to it. Looking forward to spending time together each week is part of the fun. How often you can commit to a home-cooked meal may vary depending on your free time—maybe you cook together several times a week, every Sunday afternoon, or just once a month.

  • Be realistic: Whatever the frequency is, take this commitment seriously as your loved one will quickly grow to depend on it.
  • Get organized: Mark your cooking days on your loved one’s calendar so they can look forward to it—and mull over ideas ahead of time.
  • Plan ahead: At the end of each cooking date, pick the next meal you want to prepare together.
  • Shop early: Do the grocery shopping on your own ahead of time if your loved one is unable to leave the house or feels fatigued easily. If they enjoy shopping, it can be a nice activity for you to do as a team.
  • Have fun: Cooking together is a great way to introduce new foods to your loved one’s diet. Especially if it’s doctor’s orders to eat more vegetables and less sugar, you can try out tasty veggie side dishes or desserts low in sugar.

Call in Support

Throughout the year, your life will ebb and flow—there may be weeks when you don’t have time to do grocery shopping, or when your child gets sick and you need to stay home. Preparing for this possibility will help make sure your loved one gets in some kitchen time even when you find yourself unexpectedly unavailable.

  • Have a backup plan: Ask a few friends if they’d mind stepping in to cook with your loved one if you’re sick, have work obligations, or something else comes up unexpectedly.
  • Get more help: If you want someone to cook with your loved one more often than your schedule allows, reach out to home care workers in your area—it’s possible to hire someone for just a few hours a week.
  • Ask family members: If you have other family living nearby, they might also enjoy being invited over to cook. This can be a real treat for grandkids in the family—getting to cook with grandma will be a memory they’ll always cherish.

Focus on Connection

Cooking together is ultimately about spending quality time, sharing laughs while stirring a pot or chopping veggies. It can give you a few uninterrupted hours to turn your attention toward your aging loved one and focus all of your attention on them. Don’t worry if the dish you make doesn’t turn out perfectly—it’s all about getting to know your loved one better, and making fond memories.

  • Mix up the conversation: Cooking is great for connecting since you’re doing too much to get bogged down in any one topic, so let the conversation go wherever it seems to flow.
  • Embrace silence: Sharing comfortable silence can be just as nice as a lively conversation. Being able to cook quietly, side by side, can give your loved one a bit of a rest if they’re tired, and allow you to just enjoy being in each other’s presence.
  • Gauge energy: If your loved one seems fatigued, take one a more active role in the cooking. If they seem energized, let them do as much as they want.
  • Let go of control: Take this opportunity to let go of doing things perfectly, instead focusing on sharing tasks and having fun.

Cook Delicious, Healthy Meals as a Family

Sharing a home-cooked meal can help you connect as a family over nutritious food you both enjoy. Since older adults typically need fewer calories and more nutrients, it can be helpful to choose dishes that are high in calcium, protein, and Vitamins B and D.
Similarly, digesting a big meal in one sitting can be tough on older adults’ digestive systems. Instead, try meals that are relatively light, can work well as snacks, and are easily served in small portions. These meal ideas are chalk full of nutrients, taste delicious, and will be simple for you and your loved one to make together:

  • Veggie stir fry: This is a healthy dish that works great heated up throughout the week or can feed a bunch of people if your loved one has company over for dinner. Throw a selection of their favorite vegetables together, frying them up in a pan with healthy oil, some garlic, and seasoning. Carrots, onions, zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms are a delicious mix. Toss in tofu or chicken slices if you like. Steam a big batch of brown rice and mix everything together, drizzling more oil or a sauce on top.
  • Spinach and shrimp salad: A lovely, light lunch or dinner, this tasty salad is full of protein and nutrients. Grill up some fresh or frozen shrimp with healthy oil, then mix together with baby spinach, mushrooms, avocados, and red onions, along with a vinaigrette dressing of olive oil, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar. You can also place the shrimp on skewers to have separately. For leftovers, store the salad and dressing separately in the fridge so the spinach doesn’t get soggy.
  • Healthy soups: You can rotate making different veggie soups, whether it’s pumpkin, squash, tomato, or mixed vegetable. This is a nutritious lunch that tastes great either fresh out of the pot or reheated the next day. For protein, consider adding tofu, cheese, or sprinkling chia seeds on top. Pair with some toasted whole grain bread with hummus, or a handful of nuts to round out the meal.
  • Salmon sandwiches: Salmon is packed with healthy omega 3 oils and nutrients, and delicious to boot. Bake some salmon fillets in the oven with lemon sauce and butter. Then grill some whole grain bread with the buttered side facing down in the pan. As it grills, add a layer of cheese, tomato, and baked salmon. Place the second slice of bread with its buttered side facing up on top, then flip the whole thing over to grill the other side. You can also make wraps using whole-grain tortillas, with avocado slices for extra flavor. If you have leftover salmon, it will keep in the fridge for your loved one to use as leftovers during the week.
  • Baked apples: This is a light, healthy snack or dessert that your loved one can enjoy any time of day. Slice up a bunch of apples and place them in a baking pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg over top, and feel free to add dried fruit like raisins or cranberries. You can also use walnuts for protein. Slip the pan into the oven, fully covered, for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve with some warm tea or mulled wine for a festive winter snack. Baked apples are also just as tasty eaten cold in the summertime, or chop up the slices and add to homemade trail mix for a hearty snack.

Cooking together with your loved one will easily become one of your favorite family traditions—and one that lasts all year long. As people grow older, mealtimes can be become difficult, particularly if your loved one lives alone or has recently lost a spouse. Similarly, if they’re only cooking for themselves, it’s easy for older adults to lose interest in food preparation, or feel it takes too much energy.
Turning a chore into a shared activity can help your loved one look forward to cooking, and mealtimes in general—not to mention it can really strengthen your relationship. Between enjoying each other’s company and having fun experimenting with new recipes, there’s no time like the beginning of 2017 for you to start cooking healthy meals together with your loved one.
If you’re unsure how to best support your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

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