Quick and Healthy Foods for Picky Eaters


The AgingCare.com community forum is filled with caregivers concerns like these:

  • "Mom won't eat. She's down to 85 pounds."
  • "Dad refuses to cook. He's withering away to skin and bones."

Getting seniors to eat a balanced diet can be challenging. In fact, getting seniors to eat anything at all is a problem many caregivers face.

There are many reasons why elderly people don't eat properly, including a reduction in sense of smell and taste that worsens with age, side effects from medications that affect the senses, problems with chewing or a lack of motivation to cook when dining alone.

One way to help ensure your loved one is eating is to make sure there are plenty of ready-to-eat meals and snacks on hand at all times. Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, recommends stocking up on these quick and healthy foods:

  • Sodium-free cottage cheese. "Cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein and calcium," Ms. Frechman told AgingCare.com. "And because it's a soft consistency, it's easily chewed and swallowed."
  • Canned fruit. "Canned fruits can be every bit as good for you as fresh ones," Ms. Frechman says. Avoid fruits in heavy syrup because they are higher in sugar and calories. Healthier choices include fruit canned in its own juice or in sugar-free syrup. "Add some canned peaches to cottage cheese and you've got a tasty, healthy meal," she says.
  • Unsalted nuts. Nuts promote heart health because they lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the blood. Walnuts, almonds, pecans and macadamia nuts are all good choices, Ms. Frechman says.
  • Yogurt. It provides nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, and it also has probiotics, the "good" bacteria of the digestive tract which provide a broad range of health benefits, Ms. Frechman says. She recommends buying a large carton, adding some canned fruit and granola to make a tasty parfait.
  • Oatmeal. "Oatmeal is my go-to food," Ms. Frechman says. "It's a super-healthy whole grain; it's high in fiber, it's inexpensive, and it can be made into a meal."
  • Peanut butter. "Peanut butter has more than 30 vitamins and minerals, and it has no cholesterol or trans fat," Ms. Frechman says. "Who doesn't love peanut butter and crackers, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?"
  • Canned soup. It's a meal in minutes, but look for the low-sodium variety.
  • Frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables yield high nutrient concentrations, a longer shelf-life than fresh vegetables, require little preparation and are available year-round. The newest convenience trend: Steam-in-the-bag, single-serving frozen vegetables.

Ms. Frechman cautions that some of these foods may cost a little more – you're paying for the packaging and the convenience– but it pays off if it means your loved is eating a well-balanced diet.

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@nsiverson: Major hugs! I thought my mother was a picky eater, but you have much more to cope with!

My picky eater has two diet-related issues that we MUST deal with: constipation caused by pain medication and bladder infections that can no longer be treated with antibiotics (seriously). Water and fiber are musts in her diet, and it is a daily struggle to get her to consume them in adequate quantities. Strategies have included tough love ("It's your choice. Drink the water and have no pain, or don't drink it and start hurting"), bargaining ("Let's eat these veggies now. If you poop, I can make you a corndog for supper"), and "presentation." Mama has always been high maintenance and obsessed with appearances (think Hyacinth Bucket), so whether things are "pretty" matters a lot.

On one of our outings, I took her to a dollar store, where her shopping instincts kicked in. I pushed her around the store in her wheel chair while she held the basket and pointed to two "pretty" plates and a "pretty" bowl. These are now standard items, used first for breakfast cereal and meals.

I took the hint and bought some pretty dishes (a Corelle pattern called Watercolors that has coordinating but not matching plates, which gives more variety to the settings) that I use next in the rotation. I also dug out some plastic bowls that I once used for candy at seminars: bright yellow plastic with a happy face on the side. Those are cereal bowls now. Her cookies and treats (she seems to crave sugar) are in the Happy Bucket (another bright yellow item with the same happy face on the side).

Note that the bargaining can be two-ways. She may not remember that I am her daughter rather than her mother or, some days, a total stranger, but she does remember how to bargain: "I had a BM. Now I can have something good to eat!"

Mmm. Cornbread and milk! ;)
One thing I have found which encourages my elderly clients to eat, is to serve very attractive food. Sounds like a "duh", but really... look at the plate! I take sliced turkey and put some shredded cheese and a little sour cream and salsa inside, roll it up, and put 3 - 4 of these "logs" in a circle on a little plate. In between I do matchstick cuts of fresh cucumber and carrot, with a couple of olives in the middle. This looks so pretty and not overwhelming in quantity, that it is well received. I have also made a sandwich and cut it into 1 inch pieces, placing a decorative toothpick into each piece. With that, freshly sliced tomato and onion arranged lying on top of each other. For very arthritic hands, skip the toothpick! When one of my clients said he was going to stop eating and let himself die, I said that wasn't on the agenda for that day, and got a bowl of canned, tropical fruit ready. He ate the whole thing and asked for seconds. Later he said, from the other room "I didn't mean it."
There are some very good suggestions in this article, and also in Ruth's comment. Not all apply in all situations, of course, but the list is good to consider. Nuts not are a good choice for people who have trouble chewing. My mother can chew them but she simply would not eat them unsalted. Sometimes you have to judge which is worse, not eating, or eating something salty? The same with canned fruit with syrup. Frankly, if my mother weighed 85 pounds and wouldn't eat anything but canned fruit, I'd enourage use of the heavy syrup varieties. Since my husband eats well we use light syrup; I know he'll get additional calories from other healthy foods.

My mother,90, still lives alone. The only cooking she does is with the microwave. We've arranged for her to get meals on wheels, which she likes, and helps ensure she eats several healthy meals a week. I don't think we could count on that without the delivery service.

When hubby is not feeling like eating I can almost always interest him in a milkshake. To the ice cream and milk I add a Carnation Instant Breakfast packet, sometimes a banana and peanut butter, or whatever fresh berries we have on hand, or canned peaches. I'll bet my mother would like this, too, but living alone she is not apt to prepare it for herself.

Mom loves devilled eggs, so us daughters tend to bring a few when we visit.

Cold shrimp dipped in seafood cocktail sauce is something both my husband and mother find easy and appealing to eat.

V8 juice (which comes in a low sodium version) is another thing hubby will sometimes welcome even if he isn't eating anything but crackers with peanut butter.