Summer cookouts are all about serving casual, crowd-pleasing food, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying the warm weather and sunshine. However, when it comes to hosting seniors, the concept of a backyard barbecue suddenly becomes a little more intimidating. What can you serve that will be appealing to and healthy for everyone?

Below, a number of experts in the culinary and elder care fields offer their best tips and advice for crafting a cookout menu that all your guests will want (and be able) to dig into.

Poll Your Guests

The first step is to request information from your guests about any dietary restrictions they may have. Remember, just because you request this information doesn’t mean you have to satisfy all requests in every dish. But, having this information at your disposal can help you make some simple changes to your menu that make more dishes accessible to more people.

Salt is an excellent example. If you have a few guests who are on sodium-restricted diets, purchasing a package of low-sodium hot dogs or opting to forgo the salt when seasoning your burger patties and potato salad gives them more options to choose from. Including a salt shaker or two on your buffet table allows other guests to season their plates to their hearts’ content.

A Chef’s Take on Senior Cookouts

“In a nutshell, you just want to keep it simple,” says Pat Marone, executive chef at The Regency Assisted Living community in Glen Cove, New York. Throughout his career, Chef Marone has been associated with a number of five-star restaurants. Now his passion is creating menus that accommodate common senior dietary restrictions but do not skimp on flavor. His go-to dish for outdoor parties at The Regency is grilled barbecued chicken, but he marinates it with a low-sodium, low-fat dressing flavored with pepper and garlic. To accommodate his diabetic residents, he either avoids adding sugar or uses sugar a substitute in his recipes. To satisfy seniors who are watching their cholesterol, Marone provides low-fat and full-flavor main and side dish options, such as turkey burgers, watermelon salad with mint and baked beans.

Balance Health with Enjoyment

Renata Gelman, clinical manager at Partners in Care, the private affiliate of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, says it's especially important for some seniors to stay away from fatty foods. However, indulging in moderation is unlikely to have a significant effect on a senior’s overall health. In fact, most cookout foods like corn on the cob, various salads and barbecued meats aren't terribly bad for seniors.

Of course, Gelman encourages serving better choices that are low in fat and high in fiber, like fruit, vegetable kabobs and soy hot dogs and hamburgers. Keep in mind that a cookout doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. If you can balance out a cheeseburger with a scoop of fruit salad and some grilled vegetables, AND get an aging loved one to eat it, consider it a major win.

Desserts and Beverages

A cold beer or cocktail and an ice cream cone are quintessential for keeping guests cool at a summer BBQ, but these options may not always be the best for seniors. For beverages, try to stick with water, homemade lemonade or fruit juice blends that aren’t terribly high in sugar. You can easily make your own fruit-infused waters that are extra refreshing and more interesting than the plain alternative. If you can, avoid serving seniors alcohol, which is dehydrating. “Older people don't always know when they are becoming dehydrated,” Gelman warns. Their thirst mechanism doesn’t function as well, and this can be very dangerous in hot, sunny conditions.

When it comes to dessert, almost anything goes at a cook out. Fortunately many varieties of fruit are in season during summer, which means there are plenty of high-quality ingredients available for whipping together delicious and relatively healthy desserts. For example, try grilling fruit like peaches or pineapple and serving it with a small scoop of ice cream. Consider making a mixed fruit crisp or macerating berries to serve as a flavorful topping on slices of angel food cake. If sugar is a concern for diabetic seniors, opt to use a substitute like Splenda or look for sugar free recipes.

Customization is King

Judith Beto, professor of nutrition sciences at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, suggests offering a wide variety of options at your event. You don’t have to make 10 different dishes but setting up your mains and sides so that each person can customize their meal offers the greatest flexibility. For example, a salad bar allows guests to start with the same foundation but assemble their own toppings and dressings to meet their dietary preferences and needs. (This is something that will also appeal to younger guests who are calorie-counting or just plain picky!) Applying this approach to as many of your dishes as possible will ensure everyone finds a combination they’ll enjoy.


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Consider Classic Comfort Foods

Comfort foods are always a big hit, as they often bring back pleasant memories and recollections of family recipes and past get-togethers. A number of them also happen to be easy to eat and digest. Consider adding macaroni and cheese, collard greens, a casserole or banana pudding to your spread. These dishes are generally easy to prepare, can be adapted to be lower in fat, sodium and sugar, and, most importantly, they can be enjoyed by seniors who have difficulty chewing or ill-fitting dentures.

Don’t Take It Personally

If, after all this effort, you find that your senior guests are picking at their food or claiming not to be hungry, don't take offense. Beto points out that seniors' eating and medication patterns often differ from those of younger people. Her in-laws, for instance, are often ready to eat lunch at 9:30 in the morning! Another important point is that warmer weather tends to make appetites wane. As long as you make an effort to meet your guests’ needs and keep them hydrated, you did your part. If they beg off food, honor their choice and don't make an issue of it.

Focus on the Fun

Unless a senior has a serious medical condition that warrants a strict diet, try not to worry about cooking up a dietician-approved spread. Everyone deserves to indulge once in a while, and some traditional BBQ fare will likely give seniors something to look forward to. If someone with particularly complex needs plans to attend, simply ask that they bring along a dish or two of their own. As long as there is a mix of healthy, enjoyable foods to choose from, everyone is sure to have a great time.

To help you jumpstart your menu planning, try Chef Marone’s quick and easy recipe below.

Chef Pat Marone's Pasta with Peas

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup onions, diced
  • 1 cup Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 2 cups peas, cooked
  • 4 cups reserved pasta water
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pound ditalini pasta, cooked al dente
  • 6 basil leaves, chiffonade
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add garlic and lightly toast until slightly golden in color. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes, then the onions. Let the onions cook down, stirring so the garlic doesn't burn. Add tomatoes and cook down for 1.5 minutes. Add basil then season with salt and pepper. Add peas and stir to combine. Add chicken stock and reserved pasta water. Cook down for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add pasta to sauce and toss. Let pasta cook in the sauce for another minute. Plate up and enjoy!

Reprinted with permission.