The New Dietary Guidelines: How Seniors Can Make Every Calorie Count

Every five years the government updates the familiar food pyramid and offers updated dietary guidelines for Americans. None of the changes to the guidelines made last January should come as much of a surprise. Once again we are told to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in our diet on a daily basis and eat less fat, added sugar, salt and refined grains. The ultimate goal: eat more nutrient-dense foods and beverages—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, fish, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds.

For the elderly, this can be more of a challenge. As we age we require less calories, usually related to being less active, yet the need for essential nutrients does not change. Some health conditions can affect appetite or digestion of some foods. As seniors eat less, it becomes more critical to make sure every calorie counts. Individuals, who are overweight, have diabetes or other health conditions have other nutritional requirements to consider. People who have these and other chronic conditions should always discuss nutritional questions with a doctor or dietician.6a013485b4e45b970c014e88d8a1e4970d-320wi.jpg

In our communities we focus on scratch cooking and limiting processed food. The majority of the foods in our kitchens are made from scratch; we even roast our own deli meats. We start with good quality ingredients - lean meats and poultry, fresh fruit and vegetables and the “good” oils, canola and olive.  After that, we stress variety and presentation to provide a well-rounded, healthy diet that everyone will enjoy. 

Including whole grains in our menu selections is a challenge as folks who have not eaten grains like quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice and seeds can be initially skeptical. Since we use these in fresh homemade cooking, we soon get converts. Rest assured that we still do make good old whipped potatoes when we serve meat loaf. Everyone needs comfort food! 

Eat more fruit and vegetables

People of any age often feel they can never eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables - six servings each day.  This may be more about liking the current routine of meat and potatoes! Rather than picturing six servings, consider having half of each plate of food you eat be vegetables.

There are ways to add vegetables to your favorite dishes.  For example adding a cup or more of cooked and pureed cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, sweet potato, or zucchini to favorite recipes for tomato sauce is just one way to add a serving or two and add a new flavor dimension to an old favorite.  If you are a fan of meat loaf made with either lean ground beef or poultry, adding pureed veggies adds extra nutrition and makes the loaf moist, making up for the elimination of fat in the meat.

Other ideas to introduce more fruit, vegetables and nuts into your diet

There are so many ways to add fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds into a typical diet that everyone can pick and choose what they like. There is no reason to eat brussel sprouts if you really do not care for them, as there are plenty of alternatives! Not all of the following ideas will not work for individuals with digestion issues, but others may find the ideas helpful.

  • Add slivered almonds to your breakfast cereal. Or add raisins or dried cranberries.
  • Try dehydrated fruit slices as snacks. These are easy to find at the grocery these days.
  • Freeze seedless grapes for a cool treat in summer.
  • Fruit juice is an excellent way to get additional servings of fruit. Try blending juices for new flavors. For example if you are not a fan of apple juice, mix it with cranberry cocktail juice.
  • Fruit smoothies are a great way to get fruit even when you have no fresh fruit in the kitchen. (Small food processors are great for this in that they hold just enough for a serving or two and are easy to clean and store.) Try a variety of frozen fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, mango, papaya, and bananas. This is a great way to increase vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium in your diet.
  • Try pureed cauliflower or parsnips instead of mashed potatoes for a nice change of pace. Mashed sweet potato is another substitute. Or if you will miss the spuds, do half and half.
  • A quick ratatouille – a seasoned sautéed mix of veggies, is a great dish to make in bigger quantities. Smother a small serving of chicken or pork with your ratatouille to get both a little protein and a couple servings of vegetables.
  • Oven roasting vegetables brings out different flavors in vegetables like turnips, asparagus and carrots and tomato as well.
  • Are you a fan of hummus? This chickpea spread is very easy to make but many varieties can be found in the deli section of grocery stores today. Eat as a dip with baby carrots and you get vegetables and protein.
  • Try drinking a serving of vegetables a day. Low-sodium V8 is an easy serving. If you like fruit smoothies, try making some with vegetables. No way? You are making your own V-8.
    • Pureed carrots have a natural sweetness and when paired with apples the results are wonderful. Try this recipe, but don’t get bogged down by exact measurements. Use this as a guide.

1-cup apple juice

1 cup of sliced apple (sweet tasting apples are better)

1/4-cup applesauce

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1/2 cup of cucumber (peeled and sliced)

2 cups of ice

a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon (optional)

Blend this vegetable smoothie until smooth. Adding the nutmeg and cinnamon will give it great fragrance. 

Don’t forget about protein

Older adults need protein but often have a decreased desire to eat meat. Red meats can become harder to digest for some. Remember, protein is found in other foods, like fish, poultry, dairy, nuts and legumes. Drink milk instead of water at one or more meals. Add a hard-boiled or poached egg to salads or eat an egg as a side dish. Add a slice of cheese to a sandwich. Eat nuts as a snack and find ways to add beans into your diet. Like yogurt? It is a good source for protein – and can be tossed into those fruit smoothies or just mix with fresh fruit. 

Again, seniors with very specific nutritional restrictions due to a health condition must consult a dietitian for tips that will fit their needs. For those who do not have dietary restrictions the ideas offered here may help shake up your diet routine for the better. Others may find a few ideas worth a try for an older relative or parent, or even themselves. The goal of a healthy diet is to make every calorie count and truly enjoy what you are eating. 

One of the benefits of living in a senior community is that it is possible to leave the cooking and clean up to others!  A benefit that people do not always think of but realize after moving into a community is that food really does taste better when it is enjoyed with others.  So, as the French would say, à la vôtre santé and have a meal with a loved one soon.