Learn more about planning healthy meals for older audits and tips on kitchen organizing and safety. In this education module, we review the basics of healthy eating. Please note – this information is provided to raise awareness. Always check with health care providers when planning for and serving meals.
Topic Quick Links – Click on a topic below to go to that area of the page.
- Planning Meals Using Dietary Guidelines
- Dietary Guidelines for Specific Chronic Conditions
- Adjusting Foods Served to Dietary Guidelines
- Meal Planning
- Grocery Shopping for Nutrition, Economy & Safety
- Reorganizing the Kitchen For Safety & Convenience
- Assess the Abilities of Care Receiver(s)
- Sharing the Kitchen with the Care Receiver
- Safe Food Handling Practices
- Easy Meal Preparation
- Meal Times
- Making Mealtime Pleasant For the Care Receiver
- Letting Go
- Resources For Caregivers
Planning Meals Using Dietary Guidelines
It’s important to choose appropriate dietary guidelines that will meet the needs of your care recipient; ask if a medical professional or dietitian has prescribed a specific dietary guideline for them. Also find out if your care recipient has any food allergies; common allergy-producing foods include eggs, milk products, peanuts, wheat products. Keep in mind some foods reduce effectiveness of certain drugs. And lastly, there may be some foods that cause gastric discomfort to your individual care recipients.
Next, determine your care recipient’s food preferences. Avoid serving foods the person dislikes. Adjust recipes for favorite foods which also satisfy dietary guidelines. Substitute unhealthy ingredients to those that provided needed nutrients.
Dietary Guidelines for Specific Chronic Conditions
The following organizations provide suggested dietary guidelines for specific chronic conditions:
- Alzheimer’s Association – recommends a heart-healthy diet like the DASH diet or the Mediterranean.
- The American Diabetes Association – visit their site for information on healthy living to manage diabetes and prediabetes
- The American Stroke Association – visit their site for information on healthy living for people who have experienced a stroke
- The American Heart Association – visit their site for information on healthy living for people who have experienced a heart issues
- The Parkinson’s Foundation – visit their site for information on healthy living for people who are managing Parkinson’s
For general information on Food and Nutrition visit Health.gov; and for nutrition information and education for seniors visit the USDA SNAP-Ed Connection’s website.
Adjusting Foods Served to Dietary Guidelines
Whatever dietary guidelines are used to plan and serve the care recipient, adjustments are often required for optimum nutrition. A few examples include:
Reducing sodium (salt)
- Remove salt shaker from dining area.
- Use salt substitutes, lemon juice, or herbs (as permitted)
- There are at least 18 different names for sugar that may appear on labeling: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup, table sugar. If any of these ingredients appear first or second on label–or if there are several in the list–the sugar content is deemed “high”
- Substitute non-sugar sweeteners (if prescribed or allowed)
- Use both product labels and a reliable calorie counters to record calories on meal plans
- Be aware of serving sizes
- Be aware that some care receivers may need more calories, not fewer
Once you have determined an appropriate diet to follow, and your care recipients preferences, it’s time to create meal plans and go shopping. As you plan, remember good nutrition can come from simple foods, simply prepared. Plan for one to two weeks of meals and look the time required to do this planning as an investment in future timesaving and stress reduction.
- Attach recipes to the meal plan
- Prepare a grocery list from meal plan and recipes
- Use curbside pick up or home delivery, if possible
Meal Planning Tips:
- File meal plans for use and rotating re-use (plan once, use over and over).
- File plans in loose-leaf notebook.
- Use a sheet protector to display the plan-of-the-day and to hold any recipes for the day.
- Mount meal plans on refrigerator door with magnets.
Grocery Shopping for Nutrition, Economy & Safety
After meals are planned, grocery shopping is the next step in providing good nutritional care.
- Choose fresh fruits and vegetables as often as possible.
- Less-than-perfect-appearance does not necessarily mean less nutrition—and those items may often be purchased for lower cost.
- Supplement fresh produce with canned and/or frozen.
- Avoid buying “empty calories” (“junk food”).
- Even if the care receiver needs extra calories, those provided should contribute to good nutrition.
- Special treats may add to quality of life, so when care is taken to satisfy Dietary Guidelines, they may become a part of the plan.
Read Food Labels:
- Size of serving (NOTE: serving size noted on labels may differ from serving size noted in Dietary Guidelines; use Dietary Guidelines information).
- Nutrients contained (for a quick comparison, use the % of RDA information).
- Remember to check the sell-by date (to avoid buying outdated or almost outdated foods).
Grocery Shopping For Economy – Most households have food budgets
- Careful planning and shopping can help stretch the food dollars available.
- Shop from the list.
- Use the food dollars for the foods actually needed.
- Avoid shopping when hungry; hungry shoppers are prey to impulse buying.
- Avoid “Total” shock at the check-out stand, use a calculator to track total cost of items in the basket while shopping.
- Shop during less crowded times for a more pleasant experience.
- Shop for one or two weeks’ worth of groceries in a single trip
- Fewer trips to the store = fewer opportunities to over-buy.
- Choose to cook more “from scratch” foods. The initial time spent may be longer, but savings can be great.
- Use shelf labels to compare price-per-unit for best buys – the quality of lower priced items is often comparable to higher priced ones.
- Use coupons wisely
- Only use for nutritious foods on your meal plan.
- Be alert for combinations of store specials + coupons for extra savings.
Grocery Shopping For Safety
Being aware of safety concerns while grocery shopping, especially when care receivers are shopping with them, can help caregivers provide better care.
Physical Safety; help care receivers avoid:
- Wet floors, mops, and buckets.
- Produce and other merchandise on floor.
- Wrinkled floor mats.
- Unstable displays and stacked merchandise.
- On-floor advertising decals (which may be perceived as 3-dimensional and cause falls).
- Carts with protruding merchandise.
- Thoughtless shoppers and running children.
NEVER, EVER, LEAVE YOU CARE RECEIVER ALONE IN THE CAR WHILE YOU SHOP!
- Shop in an order that will keep food at safe temperatures.
- Packaged and canned goods.
- Frozen foods
- Dairy and eggs
- Meats, poultry, fish
- To avoid long waits at check-out, avoid shopping when the store is crowded.
- Use curbside pickup or delivery, if possible.
- Take food directly home after shopping and put it away immediately to keep it safe to eat.
Reorganizing the Kitchen For Safety & Convenience
Assess the kitchen for physical hazards (ex: tripping or falling)
- Slippery or cracked flooring
- Loose tiles
- Throw rugs
- Extension cords
Check for electrical/fire hazards such as frayed electrical cords, overloaded plugs, and natural gas leaks. After assessing, arrange for needed corrections, repairs, and upgrades.
Safety Equipment: Check to ensure the fire extinguisher is charged and operational. Also check the smoke alarm and the carbon monoxide alarms – ensure the batteries are working. TIP: Change the batteries when the time changes to/from Daylight Savings time.
Hazardous Materials in the Kitchen: Kitchens contain hazardous materials! To help keep the kitchen a safe place, ask, “What is the worst that could happen if this product were used inappropriately?” Then develop strategies to avoid that possible outcome.
- Read labels on all non-food products–especially cleaning products.
- Store all hazardous products in a separate cabinet away from foods Provide a lock for this cabinet if necessary for safety.
- Post Poison Control Telephone Number: 1-800-222-1222
Assess the Abilities of Care Receiver(s)
Every care receiver is unique, with individual strengths and weaknesses. Caregivers need to assess the functional abilities of care receivers to identify the best possible care consult professionals, as needed. Assess their physical abilities and limitations, such as:
- How much can they safely lift?
- How far can they comfortably reach?
- How much bending can they tolerate?
- How are good is the care recipient’s cognitive/memory abilities?
- Can they understand, remember, and follow safety precautions?
Sharing the Kitchen with the Care Receiver
Care recipient independence is a prime goal for caregivers. Since both the care receiver and caregiver may share the kitchen space, duties, equipment and food, strive to reduce conflicts by making changes tactfully and with the care recipient’s participation. Use this collaboration as an opportunity to “chunk the junk.” De-clutter cabinets, shelves, drawers, pantries. Since this may be a major job, take it one shelf or drawer at a time encourage care receiver to give away unneeded items to family or friends, give to a charity, or to have a garage sale. Determine if adaptations are needed for mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers.
Tips on arranging the kitchen
- Place items within easy reach of the care receiver
- The caregiver can adapt to the kitchen as laid out for the care receiver. When the care receiver no longer comes into the kitchen as a participant, it can then be arranged for the convenience of the caregiver.
- Arrange equipment and food packages by type.
- “Face” all food packages with labels forward for easy identification.
- Label cabinets, shelves, and drawers, using address labels and bold markers
”A place for everything and everything in its place” equals a stress reducer for the caregiver(s), especially if there are two or more caregivers.
Sickness can be caused by food that still looks, smells, and tastes “OK”. Even a tiny taste can cause illness. Once food has become contaminated with bacteria, it may not be possible to make it safe to eat–by any means. Since many care receivers have weakened immune systems and are vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. Avoid infections by following safe food handling practices:
- Put away all refrigerated and frozen foods as soon as possible: meats, poultry, fish, dairy products.
- Use a thermometer to check temperature inside refrigerator.
- Temperatures from 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F are in the DANGER ZONE for bacterial growth.
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly, a two-hour limit is often suggested, but shorter times are safer times.
- Cook eggs, meats and other dishes to safe temperatures.
- Use meat thermometer and chart showing safe temperatures for “doneness” of various foods.
- Observe freshness dates on food packaging. Remember, “When in doubt, throw it out!”
Cleanliness helps prevent infection
- Damp towels, sponges and dish cloths are breeding grounds for bacteria.
- Use paper towels or freshly disinfected-and-dried towels each time.
- Wash hands frequently in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds each time. -Singing “Happy Birthday” (silently if you wish!) is suggested as a good “timer” for hand washing.
- Frequently disinfect countertops, cutting boards and all other surfaces that come into contact with food.
- Wash surfaces and allow to air dry.
Avoid cross-contaminating other foods when preparing meats, poultry, fish and eggs. Example: Do not use cutting board for chopping vegetables after it has been used for cutting meat–disinfect thoroughly first.
After all the preliminary work is done (planning meals from appropriate Dietary Guidelines, shopping for groceries, being certain that the kitchen is safe) it’s finally time to prepare meals for the care receiver – in ways that are easy on the caregiver. To make meal planning easy on the Caregiver plan ahead, use very simple recipes, and cook in quantity so the food can be served several times.
Example 1 – BAKED CHICKEN – can be served as:
- Sliced in sandwiches
- Chopped and served as chicken salad
- Leftovers and bones simmered with vegetables & rice to make soup
Example 2 – COOK IN QUANTITY – freeze in portions to serve over time:
- Beans (or beans and rice)
- Pasta and sauce
- Roast beef
- Baked turkey
- Assemble meals and snacks for the entire day; put on trays & refrigerate (as needed).
- Use store-heat-and-serve containers.
- “Assemble” meals from what is available.
- It is unnecessary to “cook” every meal!
- Be adventurous and creative in combinations of foods.
- Use prepared foods sometimes from a Deli or Restaurant.
- When cooking for the rest of the family, prepare and set aside an extra serving for the care receiver.
- Delegate tasks to: The care receiver (tailor the tasks to his/her capacities and interests)
Your care recipient may prefer (or may be prescribed) to have several smaller meals, rather than the traditional “three squares.” For example, breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus mid-morning, mid-afternoon, bedtime snacks. Smaller, more frequent meals help keep blood sugar levels more constant. Mealtimes and snack times can become daily “events” to be anticipated with pleasure.
- Serve “favorites” often by adapting recipes to Dietary Guidelines. There may be a detectable difference, but often the care receiver will still enjoy the food.
- Provide choices to provide the care receiver with a sense of control.
- Adjust food consistency, texture and morsel size to the care receiver’s ability.
Chewing & Swallowing
- Serving some pureed foods may help the care receiver become accustomed to them in case they are limited to that form of food later.
- Assemble meals that appeal to several senses.
- Aroma and contrasting colors, even foods of different temperatures, make dining more pleasant.
- Avoid servings that seem too large to the care receiver, being presented with large servings can be discouraging to care receivers.
- For many care receivers, having smaller, more frequent meals can provide needed nutrients more pleasantly for them.
- Assess all the place setting items frequently; adapt as needed.
- Use solid-color plates and bowls that provide a visual contrast with the food.
- Patterned china can frustrate those with low vision: is it food or part of the decoration?
- Use easy to grasp or adaptive utensils, cups and glasses suited to needs.
- The size and shape of the handles of flatware may be hard to hold; adjust to needs.
- Some cups may be too heavy or have handles too small for comfort; adjust to needs.
- Glasses with “waists”, or stemware, may be easier to hold and lift without spilling contents.
- Adjust chair height, table height, chair-to-table relationship as needed.
- Having the tabletop at elbow height is usually comfortable.
- Provide cushions, pillows, footstools as needed.
- Support of the back makes mealtime more comfortable and relaxing.
- Some shorter care receivers may need a footstool to avoid pain and reduced blood flow to the legs.
- Brighter light is often welcome.
- For most people, brighter is more cheerful; for those with reduced vision, it is essential.
- Include care receiver in family meals whenever possible.
- But also realize that if they feel uncomfortable because of changing needs at the table, they may prefer to dine alone, joining the family, perhaps for just a beverage.
- Adjust to his/her needs.
- Take care of spills with tact; have a towel nearby but out of sight.
- Provide “shirt savers” or “dress savers” at every meal if spills are frequent:
- Do not refer to these as “bibs” even though the care receiver may.
- Provide them in styles and colors that blend with the care receiver’s clothes.
- Allow enough time for the care receiver to eat at his/her own individual pace.
- This may become increasingly slower, but exhibit (and try to be sincere!) patience.
If The Care Receiver Dines Alone
- Family photos on or near the dining table can provide a sense of comfort.
- If possible, see that the photos are large enough to be easily seen by the care receiver.
- A pleasant video or a favorite television show may provide some “company.”
- Providing a system easily used by the Care Receiver may be challenging.
- A window view with a bird- or squirrel-feeder right outside can provide mealtime entertainment.
Making Mealtime Pleasant For the Care Receiver
Mealtimes are not just about food, they provide the opportunity for socialization, & mark the times of the day, they can be a meaningful, enjoyable activity to be anticipated with pleasure for the care receiver. As needs change, mealtimes can become uncomfortable, frustrating and unpleasant. Caregivers can help avoid this by making thoughtful and appropriate changes.
- Play your favorite music to make kitchen tasks more fun.
- If care receiver is present, choose some favorite music of theirs, too.
- When friends ask what they can do; ask them to bring a meal now and then!
- Consider using Meals on Wheels for temporary caregiver respite.
Realize that as the end of life nears, systems of the body begin to shut down. Coaxing a care receiver who is in this stage to eat and drink only causes them greater discomfort. Follow the physician’s guidelines, and when this time comes, find the strength to let go. Seek other meaningful ways to provide care and comfort for the care receiver and solace for yourself.
- Call 2-1-1 throughout Texas for information and access to health and human service information for all ages.
- Call 800-252-9240 to find local Texas Area Agency on Aging.
- Call 800-677-1116 – Elder Care Locator service to find help throughout the U.S.
Use resources such as Area Agency on Aging (AAA). Types of assistance provided by AAAs:
- Information and referral
- Caregiver education and training
- Caregiver respite
- Caregiver support coordination
- Case management
- Transportation assistance
Assistance available through AAAs for persons age 60 and older may include:
- Benefits counseling
- Ombudsman – advocacy for those who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities
- Home-delivered meals
- Congregate meals
- Light housekeeping
Be sure to check out our Resource Directory, FAQ, and Educational Events Calendar for more great information! Permission is granted to duplicate any and all parts of this page to use in education programs supporting family members caring for elders.
Reviewed March 2022Print This Page
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
For more resources, subscribe to our free eNewsletter!