Elderly nutrition: cooking & meal preparation for the elderly

Healthy eating should always be a priority, but as we age, our nutritional needs change as do our appetites which can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy diet.

Quick summary

  • Good nutrition is important at any age, but especially as people get older.
  • It can become difficult to maintain a healthy diet, especially with other conditions such as dementia.
  • It’s therefore important to ensure nutritional needs are met, and that meals are prepared with care.

Healthy eating should always be a priority, but as we age, our nutritional needs change as do our appetites which can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy diet. 

Other aspects of diet, such as vitamin and mineral levels, and foods that can be dangerous to older people, need to be considered too. Unfortunately, often little attention is paid to elderly nutrition as people don’t necessarily understand its importance, or may struggle to encourage their loved one to eat the right things, due to cognitive issues such as dementia. 

Old age is not the time to become too strict with someone’s diet, but it’s important that people eat nutritionally-balanced meals, taking supplements when needed. Making sure this happens is one of the key domestic tasks a home carer will perform.

Meals become a really important time of day for the elderly, and form the basic structure of a day of care at home. They’re an important part of creating a routine – not only do they help add structure but they’re a time for people to sit down and socialise. All of which can have huge benefits – with various studies showing how sharing a meal is about much more than food.

As people age, a number of issues can make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet – for example, physical conditions like arthritis affect mobility and the ability to cook meals. Cognitive issues like dementia can make meal planning and preparation difficult and even dangerous. Not only that, but alongside forgetting to eat, those with dementia may no longer enjoy the same foods they used to.

Nutritional needs change with age too. Older people require fewer calories due to a decrease in basal metabolic rate, and a decrease in physical activity. Vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D are not absorbed as easily – meaning supplements may be needed.

Basal metabolic rate

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the rate of energy you expend at rest. So, it’s the minimum amount of energy or calories your body needs to function, when there’s no level of exertion. Most people will need to eat at a higher level than their BMR.

The importance of nutrition in the elderly

The risk of developing certain mental and physical conditions – such as heart disease and cancer – increases as we get older. Keeping a healthy lifestyle can help to minimise this risk and even help prevent some health conditions, such as type two diabetes, that can come with age.

Type two Diabetes

Type two diabetes is a common condition that happens when the levels of sugar in your blood are too high. It’s most often linked to obesity and inactivity so can present itself at any age, but more so as people get older. Symptoms of type two diabetes include excessive thirst and tiredness – it’s managed through a change in diet and regular check ups as well as medication.

Cognitive decline

Good nutrition can be incredibly beneficial for mental health – and this is especially true for the elderly. Having the right diet can even help to slow down the ageing of the brain – research suggests that having a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids can play a protective role against the development of dementia.

Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in fish and other seafood such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. If your loved one is not a fan of seafood, nuts and seeds such as flaxseed and chia seeds can provide a healthy source of Omega 3 too.

With older age, there’s an increased risk of conditions such as stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s and depression. High intakes of salt, fat and alcohol is linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of cognitive decline.


Bone & joint health

In the UK, it’s estimated that there are over 3.5 million adults over 50 living with osteoporosis. And, on top of that – over 500,000 fragility fractures occur each year.

Having good nutrition is key for optimum bone health. An adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D helps to maintain peak bone mass – which keeps bones stronger and helps to reduce the risk of osteoporotic fractures.

Foods such as milk and dairy products, eggs, fish and vegetables are some of the best to eat to increase your vitamin D and calcium intake. There are also vitamin D and calcium supplements that can be taken or even prescribed in higher doses. Your GP can test vitamin D levels to assess whether this is needed.


Cardiovascular disease & stroke

Cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease and stroke, is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the UK.

Risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease include obesity, hypertension, smoking, a high saturated fat intake, low level of activity and diabetes. Therefore a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to reduce the risk – heart healthy foods include things such as leafy green vegetables and whole grains.

Weight management

Being a healthy weight is important for good health at any age, however both malnutrition and obesity are prevalent in the older population.

Obesity is more common in the elderly due to limited mobility and certain prescription drugs. Whereas malnutrition can come about as people lose their appetite, experience loneliness, or develop health conditions, as well as from the general ageing process.

There’s an increased risk of disease, delays in recovery and adverse effects on wellbeing for those who are underweight or malnourished. For those carrying excess weight, there’s an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and type two diabetes.

Whether someone is under or overweight, a healthy diet is essential – eating healthy meals can help your loved one to consume the foods they need to live a longer, active lifestyle.

Meeting dietary needs for the elderly

It is important to understand and adapt to the nutritional needs of the elderly. Having the right elderly care can help to ensure this is the case. Live-in carers, for example, carers can curate and adapt meal plans to suit dietary requirements, as well as prepare and serve meals.

A lack of appetite & malnutrition

Studies show that older people living in care homes are more likely to suffer from malnutrition than those living at home. This can be due to under-staffing, strict schedules around feeding times, and a lack of one-to-one menus or companionship while eating.

However, even at home, physical and mental health problems can lead to a decrease in appetite, and occasionally even malnutrition. In these cases, the recommendation is ‘energy first, nutrition second’. If an older person is happy to eat a slice of cake, but doesn’t want to eat a wholesome meal, then that is preferable to the refusal of food altogether.

Loss of appetite can occur as taste buds change. That’s why the meals prepared by a elderly carer must be delicious, healthy and nutritious.

Carers can liaise with clients to plan menus. Meals can be a really important aspect in an elderly person feeling independent and in control in their own home. Menus can be made using herbs, spices and chilli to boost diminished taste buds and bring flavour and interest to mealtimes.

Home carers can adapt old favourites if the client has problems chewing or swallowing. Carers are happy to provide meals for the freezer that can be reheated with ease.

Purees and dips, and easy to eat foods such as slow-cooked stews and mashed potato can all help tempt a client to start enjoying their food again.

In an emergency, food supplement shakes like Ensure can be used if necessary, but these should be seen as a short-term solution as they are high in sugar and low in roughage. Reverting to real food should always be the aim.

Likewise, cues for thirst also decrease in later life – medication can interfere with this physical prompt, as can psychological concerns about being able to get to the toilet in time later on. Therefore, dehydration can become an issue. Personal one-to-one care means being encouraged to drink and using the bathroom are always priorities.

Elderly meal times

Routines can become increasingly important as people get older, especially around mealtimes. It is even more important for those living with dementia or Alzheimers as a lack of routine can cause confusion or frustration.

All meals and snacks should be offered at the same time every day. This also helps regulate hunger patterns and create an appetite.

Arranging live-in care

For those arranging a live-in carer with us, we always recommend providing a food budget of least £30 per week. This is one of the home carer’s costs you’re expected to cover – a prepaid card can be a good idea for this. Although, you’re welcome to pay it through us.

What to avoid

It’s also worth remembering that certain foods should generally be avoided in older people, as they could cause food poisoning in those with weaker immune systems.

These include raw eggs, soft cheeses such as brie and camembert and any raw meat or fish. Washing fruits such as strawberries is also important, to remove fertilizer that may have come from manure.

Older people should also avoid high-sodium foods, as too much salt can become a problem – especially for those with a history of hypertension, as it can lead to high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease.

Caffeine and high sugar drinks should also be avoided if possible. Caffeine can cause increased anxiety and lead to sleeping problems, while sugary drinks can raise blood sugar levels and increase the risk of diabetes.

How can a live-in carer help with cooking for the elderly?

If a loved one is not as safe as they once were in the kitchen, then live-in care from Elder could be the answer. Perhaps hobs are left on with no pan, or the fridge is empty or filled with food past its best before date. These can all be signs that an older person needs some help in the kitchen to keep themselves well-fed.

A live in carer can help with:​

  • Meal preparation
  • Work with your loved one to prepare food
  • Plan meals in line with dietary requirements
  • Check food supplies and do shopping
  • Check expiry dates
  • Clean up after a meal and wash up
Home carers can prepare meals from scratch, or heat a ready meal and add some fresh vegetables on the side. They can cater to various dietary and nutritional requirements, whether that’s preparing three healthy meals a day or blending diabetic drinks.

Not only can a live-in carer help you or your loved one to prepare and cook meals that they enjoy but it can also help them to stay healthy and make mealtimes as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

When there are real concerns about a loved one’s ability to look after themselves and to eat and drink well, home care could be the solution. Whether a home carer is required to cook favourite suppers or create tempting menus, they can prepare the nutritious and healthy meals your loved one craves.

Sometimes older people need reminding to eat and having some company can help with this – as well as providing an incentive to eat for those who aren’t prioritising it.

Having a live-in carer to help with meal preparation can help with the following:

  • Preventing malnutrition
  • Teaching older people simpler cooking methods
  • Providing an activity to keep people occupied
  • Reducing social isolation and loneliness
  • Enables people to stay independent at home

Frequently asked questions

What are the nutritional needs of the elderly?

The elderly have slightly different nutritional needs to others. First of all, their required calorie consumption will likely be lower than a younger person. But, they may need to take supplements for some vitamins such as vitamin D and calcium – to support bone health.

Why is nutrition important for the elderly?

As people age, certain health conditions can become more likely – and having good nutrition can help to reduce the risk of these. Nutrition is important at any age, but maintaining it for the elderly is essential – as they may struggle to do so on their own.

What can I cook for an elderly person?

When cooking for an elderly person, having a balanced plate is important but do make sure,
over anything else, to find out what they actually would like to eat. They are far more likely to eat something they enjoy – and sometimes simply eating something is better than nothing.