Meal Planning for a Senior: Where to Start?

Meal Planning

Many people are stumped when it comes to meal planning.  Meal planning can ensure nutritional and tasty meals for a senior.  We are always looking for ways to add taste but, at the same time, make them healthy and nutritious. Add to that the need to make a variety of meals so it doesn’t seem like you’re serving the same thing every night and the process gets even more daunting.

So why is meal planning so important?

  • Variety
  • Taste
  • Saves time
  • Saves money

Making meals tasty as well as healthy is extremely important for seniors.  A meal of broiled chicken, steamed broccoli, and some brown rice, albeit healthy, would have been a short meal sending my Dad to the cookie jar before I had a few bites.  I wanted him to sit with me and share some of his stories that usually hatched with a good meal and a glass of wine.  So, instead, I would opt for Ginger-Lemon Chicken, Tex-Mex Rice and Sliced Tomatoes (page 166 of 20 Minute Menus, see below).  To this meal, I would have probably added a nice piece of wheat bread with some olive oil.   I love to cook and I love to eat which makes me a pretty good judge of what is tasty.  Seniors need more pronounced tastes because of diminished olfactory senses which can impact the interest in food.  If I was faced with taste vs. health, to the extent possible, I would opt for taste.

Read more about this in our article on how caregivers can help:  Taste and Smell Change with Age

Meal Planning in 15 Minutes Per Week

When I had to make plans for my Dad, I found that organizing at least a week in advance would allow me to take all of this into consideration.  I would start by selecting two or three cookbooks that I trusted for good recipes.  In my opinion, cookbooks fall into three categories: (1) those that are not dependable (the instructions are not clear, the results are not consistent) (2) those that don’t produce tasty food and (3) my favorite: those that are consistent, tasty and easy to follow.

Here are three of my favorite cookbooks for some good and easy cooking:  The Silver Palette, Marian Burros’ 20-Minute Menus, the old standby The Joy of Cooking (I’ve had at least 4 copies).

 Once you have these cookbooks or others that you like, I use a coding system for my planning such as for 20 – Minute Menus, I would use “20, p. 146” for “Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Goat Cheese”.  This particular cookbook is especially unique because it has the full menu, a game plan and a shopping menu.

Using the planning sheets which I developed just for this purpose, you can do this on your computer and save the plan by the week and reuse them.  Once you have 4 – 5 weeks completed, you will be able to reuse indefinitely.  Alternatively, you can print them out for writing out by hand and then copying for future use.

Download these Meal Planner Sheets. 

Begin by decided a routine of how you want to add variety.  For dinners, I like to schedule Chicken, Fish, Beef, Fish, Chicken, Vegetarian, Fish to ensure 3 out of 7 days of fish (or shellfish) and only one beef day.  Keep this in mind as you peruse the cookbooks looking for tasty meals that can be made based on the amount of time and budget that you have.  Also, for days where you know that the meal will be outside of the home, make adjustments such that more healthy meals are served before and/or after to compensate for those days when we eat the steak and french fries.

Lunches, breakfasts, and snacks can be much simpler and don’t necessarily need recipes especially if you are not depending on the help of another caregiver.  But by writing down the schedule it can help to get help or to aid you in finding new ideas for these meals.   My Dad would eat a muffin every day of the week for breakfast but he sure didn’t complain when I would prepare French Toast or my favorite Greek Yogurt Fruit and Granola Parfait.  These are my own recipes and you probably have your own that you can add to your meal planning.  Lunches were not always planned and I have to admit that there were times that with doctor appointments and other errands that we would stop for an ice cream or frozen yogurt for our lunch.

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I can’t overemphasize how important meal planning is.  Seniors need to eat on a schedule especially if there is cognitive decline.  Setting a routine with someone with dementia will improve the mood considerably.  I could see a difference in my Dad on those days when we upset the routine. Even if a day derailed because of interruptions, serving a tasty meal at the right time can suddenly put the day back on track.

Another important factor is to read and be informed about the diet issues for you or your loved one’s physical or mental ailments.  Alzheimer’s, dementia, mood (i.e. depression), arthritis and, of course, diabetes can be improved with attention to the research of experts and the experience of others.

A few suggestions from the archives:

Food for Thought: Two Dietary Additions that Keep the Brain Well-Tuned

Natural Mood Boosters: “Happy Foods”

Natural Ways to Ease Arthritis Pain: Food and Drinks

The MIND diet suggests 10 foods that fight Alzheimer’s and 5 foods you should avoid

Another great reason to plan ahead and use these meal planner sheets is that it makes it much easier toe involve someone else in the preparation.   If you are an unpaid family caregiver, giving up control of the direct care is hard to do.  Meal preparation may be something that you are more willing to delegate either to another family member, friend or to a paid helper.  Finding ways to share caregiving responsibilities or tasks can allow you to avoid burnout.

Another reason for meal planning in advance is to save money.  Each trip to the grocery store tends to increase what you spend overall for food in your household.  Look at this article in the YNAB (You Need a Budget):   I’m running to the grocery store way too many times.  I haven’t done the math but I can assure you that my own experience would be the same or worse.  Plan ahead.  Know what you need and, if you need to return for a perishable item, ask someone else to go.  I know if I ask my husband to pick up an avocado that he will come home with that and nothing else!

Food and meal delivery services are becoming more common.  Even in some rural areas, ground transportation services like UPS will deliver all of the ingredients needed to prepare tasty and healthy meals.  Meal delivery services bring food from local restaurants.  Grocery delivery services bring food that you choose and order.  But now there is a hybrid, such as Hello Fresh, that brings just what you need to make a meal in only 30 minutes.  This is an amazing development since I was caring for my Dad so now I am going to try it for myself.  (My review on that will come shortly!)

More information for caregivers about senior nutrition

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