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Healthy Eating for Seniors: Simply and on a Budget

There is a lot of information on eating healthy and a lot of confusion to go along with it. What is certain is that we all know that we are supposed to eat healthy. Before we can do that, though, we need to understand what this means. Breastcancer.org gives an excellent, simple definition, one that is applicable to all people, not just cancer patients, of what eating healthy means:

“Healthy eating means eating a variety of foods that give you the nutrients you need to maintain your health, feel good, and have energy. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals.”

While this definition is simple, putting it into practice is a difficult task for many people. For seniors, it may be particularly difficult for two reasons: they may have physical limitations that prevent them from preparing food regularly and they may believe they cannot afford to. However, the same strategies that can be applied by a working mother or a busy single father to get healthy food quickly, easily, and inexpensively on the table can be applied by a senior with limitations on a budget.

Tackling Time and Physical Limitations

Plan, plan, and plan some more—that is the secret to a regular, healthy lifestyle. When not feeling well, it is very easy to resort to fast, processed, convenience foods, and these foods rarely match the definition of healthy eating. A better approach to avoid resorting to unhealthy foods and snacks is to take some time one day a week to plan meals. This takes the guesswork out of daily meal preparation.

Making a large quantity of food at one time easily cuts down on the amount of work involved in meal preparation; this can then be portioned into individual serving containers to freeze for later consumption. Homemade TV dinners are healthy alternatives to buying food out of a box. One-pot meals, such as soups and stews, are easy to prepare; do not dirty many dishes, so cleanup is easy; and freeze extremely well. Alternatively, when preparing a meal, always make extra servings freeze the rest for later. This has an added advantage for seniors whose caregivers may not come for every meal: if the caregiver prepares extra for the meals when they are present, the senior will have extra meals for those times when they are on their own.

Another strategy is to be sure items that do not require cooking are on hand. Have a stock of whole-grain, no-added-sugar cereals available. Honey or fruit can add sweetness if the senior does not have any medical history that precludes the use of sugars. Make sure that ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables are available for snacking. Try to buy “the rainbow” when shopping; look for leafy green vegetables, and bright orange, red, yellow, and purple vegetables and fruits so the senior has a colorful plate and gets a variety of nutrients. Dried fruits are also healthy choices, but the senior should eat them in moderation as these are basically concentrated forms of the fruit and therefore high in sugar.

Staying Within a Budget

Many seniors are on a fixed budget and need to watch their overall expenses. When you are shopping for foods with your senior, shop the perimeter of the store where the fresh foods are displayed and buy fruits and vegetables in season. (Out-of-season produce is always more expensive.) Unhealthier, processed foods are strategically located directly in the middle of the store so that you need to walk past these foods to get to popular fresh products such as dairy or cheeses, increasing the chance that you will buy the unhealthier products. Be aware of this and shop smartly; you can buy nearly everything you need in the fresh food departments around the perimeter of the store.

Keep in mind that while a processed food choice may seem cheaper than fresh food, you generally need to eat greater quantities of these to feel full, and you tend to feel hungrier sooner after eating foods high in fats, refined sugars, and carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains, quinoa, barley, wild rice); fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green, leafy vegetables; and good sources of protein such as chicken, fish, beans, and nuts break down more slowly in your system leaving you full longer. While some fresh products may seem too expensive, by only needing to eat smaller quantities, you actually spend less overall.

If the price of fresh products concerns your senior, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers a useful resource, Good Food on a Tight Budget. This guide lists the most popular fresh foods, rating them according to nutritional value versus cost. For example, fruits that pack the most nutrients for the lowest cost include bananas, pears, nectarines, and orange juice. Broccoli, collards and romaine lettuce are your most nutritious best values for vegetables. The EWG also offers shopping tips and recipes so you can plan meals with your senior using healthy foods while staying within budget. You can download the free guide at www.ewg.org.

Additionally, you can reduce your senior’s food expenses by reducing the portion sizes of meals. Seniors may have increased nutritional requirements, but they also may have decreased caloric requirements. There has been a growing trend over the past decades of “super-sizing” everything, including meal portions, and since many of us are raised to believe we must eat everything on our plates, obesity is on the rise. A simple method to combat this is to serve food on smaller plates; this tricks the brain into believing that you are eating more than you are. Fill the plate with a variety of vegetables, grains, and complex carbohydrates rather than with more expensive cuts of meats, and serve meats in smaller portions (e.g. cut a steak in half for two meals). A good way to make meats stretch by making soups and stews. These are filling and nutritious and can provide more meals than they would if prepared as a main dish. These techniques allow you to enjoy the foods you love, but in smaller quantities and more cheaply, and walk away from the table feeling satisfied.

When going out to eat, seniors should avoid fast food establishments and look for local places that may have good, healthy food at reasonable prices. Local farmer’s markets and diners may be good alternatives for an inexpensive lunch. Taking home leftovers can also save money. This can convert one meal into two meals for the same price as one.

There are many resources available that can help you and your senior plan meals that are healthy while not breaking the bank. In addition to the resources already mentioned, MyPlate.gov, The Harvard School of Public Health (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/), and Livestrong.com can provide additional information on nutrition and meal planning and offer healthy recipes. Probably the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in later years, though, is keep it simple. Look for fresh foods, prepare them simply, use minimal saturated fats, and enjoy your meals.

References

  • BreastCancer.org. (January 2014). What Does Healthy Eating Mean? Retrieved from http://www.breastcancer.org/tips/nutrition/healthy_eat
  • Environmental Working Group. (August 2012). Good Food on a Tight Budget. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/goodfood/

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