Good nutrition is important throughout a person’s entire life span, with nutrients needed in varying amounts at different stages of life. It is difficult to establish senior nutrition needs, as seniors are such a diverse group. For example, the needs of a wheelchair-bound 80-year-old will differ from an 85-year-old who plays tennis and swims every day. However, there are general rules that apply to people over 65—and it’s the foodservice operator’s job to customize the menu to the needs and preferences of his or her customers.
Energy, or calorie, needs decline in the elderly, as lean body mass, or muscle, decreases with age. So, seniors need to select foods that are concentrated in nutrients but low in calories. It is estimated that after the age of 51, men should reduce their intake by 600 calories a day and women 300 calories a day.
Of course, calorie needs vary depending on the level of exercise a person gets, as well as other health-related factors. Many operators in the long-term care arena are faced with the challenge of preventing further weight loss in their customers who, for myriad reasons, struggle to maintain a healthy weight.
The power of protein: The need for protein does not decrease with age for anyone, however. Adequate protein is important for a healthy immune system, for repair and maintenance of skin, muscle and blood, and for synthesizing nutrients. Soups or casseroles made with beans, lean meats, poultry and seafood can be great sources of protein. Or, consider serving whole wheat breads with bean salads; grilled, thinly sliced meats; or egg white combinations, such as egg whites scrambled with minced vegetables, served with potatoes or rice. Bean burritos or falafel on pita bread are healthful protein sources for those who appreciate ethnic dishes.
Vitamin D and calcium are both important to the health of seniors. The need for these nutrients is high (think osteoporosis) and intake can be low. Good calcium sources are low- and non-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese and milk; tofu processed with calcium; broccoli; kale; Asian greens, such as bok choy; orange juice fortified with calcium; soy milk fortified with calcium and Vitamin D; legumes and fortified bread and cereal products. Soy or rice milk are also particularly good for lactose-intolerant seniors.
Iron and zinc play a significant role in, among other things, the maintenance of eyesight and a healthy blood supply. Iron- and zinc-rich foods include legumes, tofu, whole grains, lean red meats and fortified cereals.
Additional sources of iron are dried fruit and green leafy veggies.
Seniors are at a particularly high risk of becoming dehydrated, a condition that can result in disorientation, confusion and changes in blood pressure. It can even lead to renal and cardiac abnormalities. Offer fruit and vegetable juice “cocktails,” sparkling waters, chilled and flavored soy and rice milk, and hot or cold herbal teas. Remember that caffeine- and alcohol-containing beverages do not replenish, but deplete, the body of their fluid.
Whetting appetites: Beyond the need to serve nutritionally balanced meals, there are other factors to consider. When it comes to serving healthful meals for seniors, as with every age group, you need to know your audience. Foodservice providers have to consider factors such as dexterity (can customers use a knife with ease?); flavor preferences and personal tastes (do they like spicy foods or blander flavors?), and the ability of senior customers to chew and swallow.
When offering meals for a wide spectrum of senior needs, try to design an efficient menu. Some menu items may be suitable for various dietary needs. For example, a hearty split pea soup made with unsalted vegetable stock can be enjoyed by seniors watching their fat or salt intake, as well as by those with chewing difficulties or vegetarians.
If you are offering home delivered meals, be sure that your participants are familiar with the foods you are sending. You will want to train your drivers or volunteers about the menu and develop informational flyers or pamphlets. One senior meal delivery program had a whole day’s worth of black beans and rice returned because their participants, who had requested more bean dishes, had never seen black beans. After some educating and counseling, black beans became one of the more popular items.
Even menu wording can make or break the success of meals offered. For example, a senior-site cook, fulfilling a request for more “noodle dishes,” offered tortellini and gnocchi, stuffed with veggies and potatoes, in an area where seniors were unfamiliar with those dishes. When billed by their Italian—and correct names—the dishes were a flop; yet, when renamed “home-style, home-made stuffed noodles,” they were a hit. Foodservice operations, with some careful planning, can certainly achieve a balance between offering highly nutritious and appealing foods that whet appetites and get seniors to the table.