Updated: Sep 11
Yesterday (October 4th) was Silver Sunday, the national day for celebrating older people, and I was asked by the lovely Xenia Lonergan (93) to address some of the issues older people might be facing when thinking about food, nutrition and easy ways to eat well.
I remember how little my grandmother used to eat, how small her appetite was and how much her dog benefited from discarded ham sandwiches and other morsels that she felt unable to consume, for one reason or another. I wish I had been a nutritionist then! I could have sat with her and tried to encourage her appetite with little prawns, avocado and lemon, delicious chicken broths with lightly poached veggies or interesting omelettes with feta and spinach. She had been an amazing Cordon Bleu cook, teaching us many delicious dishes and traditional fare from her native Ireland, but in her later years I think she just lost her appetite.
I wonder how true this is of many older people, and what other issues there are that need to be taken into consideration? Xenia tells me that she knows of someone who, at 78, was hospitalised with malnutrition despite eating 3 meals a day. She asked if I could come up with recipes that were simple and nutritious, with ingredients easily available from a regular supermarket, in portions for 2, with not to much washing up to do!
From a nutrition perspective, I’d be looking for meals and recipes that give a good steady blood sugar balance to aid memory, concentration and steady energy levels. That means always combining protein with complex starchy carbs (wholegrain etc), avoiding sugary, processed foods and including healthy fats for a healthy brain and heart. Those same fats are good for joints and arthritis pain too, and can be as simple to achieve as drizzling olive oil over steamed veggies, or snacking on nuts and sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Plenty of fresh vegetables are good for keeping the digestion moving, as are fruits such as pears and apples which contain plenty of soluble fibre, as well as immune supporting vitamin C.
To keep blood sugar steady, it’s a good idea to factor in some healthy and delicious snacks during the day. Oatcakes are great idea here - just 2 piled high with mashed avocado, cream cheese, tinned fish or iron-rich paté can give your energy levels a real boost mid morning or mid afternoon, as well as being a great source of B vitamins. In the afternoon, for something sweeter try a few slices of banana or apple, with a dollop of peanut butter.
Soups are a great place to start because they can be eaten over 2 days, with a salad and some whole meal bread or crackers, or along side a baked potato for dinner. Lentils, cooked well, are easily digestible, a good source of protein and surprisingly versatile: red lentils team up well with curry flavours and inflammation fighting turmeric, whilst brown or green lentils work well with bacon or ham. Chicken is another obvious soup suggestion, especially with garlic and ginger to give it some zing. Try this simple healthy, hearty recipe for 2 - 3 portions:
Chicken Noodle Soup
1 chicken breast
1/2 an onion, chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, chopped or crushed
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
A pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional)
1/2 carrot, sliced
2 florets of broccoli
2 - 3 green beans
1/2 nest or sheet of egg noodles
1 tsp sesame oil
1 - 2 tsp soy sauce
A little fresh coriander, torn up.
Get all of your ingredients ready, then bring a medium sized pan of water to the boil and then gently place the chicken breast, whole, into the pan to poach. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli if using, and cook for about 10 minutes, toppling up the water if necessary. When done, carefully lift the chicken breast out of the water and set it aside on a plate. Bring the stock back up to boil and add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Break the noodles up into the stock and stir to separate them. Bring to the boil and after about 3 minutes, add the vegetables and continue cooking for another few minutes. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, gently slice it into pieces. When the soup is ready, ladle it carefully into a big soup bowl, add some of the chicken slices and garnish with the sesame oil, soy sauce and any fresh herbs, such as coriander.
You could also add 1/2 tsp miso paste or a dash of coconut milk to this dish, and if the stock is not strong enough for your taste, add 1/2 a chicken stock cube.
For a veggie version, make the stock up with mushrooms as well as the other veggies, such as baby spinach, and add tofu cubes, or even a whisked up egg for the protein. Asparagus works well when in season too. You could also switch the noodles for 1/2 can of cannellini or kidney beans .
Keep the remaining chicken for dinner, or as a sandwich filling with 1/2 an avocado and some salad leaves.
A very convenient and great all rounder nutritionally is the humble tin of sardines. A fantastic source of mineral rich protein and an excellent source of heart and brain protecting healthy fats, tinned sardines are also a good source of calcium, owing to the little bones that get consumed along with the fish. Whilst the ones in tomato sauce are already pretty flavoursome (and make a good pasta sauce), the ones packed in olive oil make a great paté. Try the following with a few oatcakes, some hot buttered toast and a few fresh carrot or celery sticks:
I tin of sardines in olive oil
1 tsp of capers
1 tsp of butter
1 tsp cream cheese
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbs + Lemon juice
Simply mash all of the ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for half an hour or so.
Tinned salmon or crab, or smoked mackerel or trout work well too. Add a dash of horseradish source to the latter two if you like.
Seafood, generally speaking, is always a good choice when it comes to a healthy diet, not only because of the protein but also because of the mineral content. (iron, selenium and iodine) as well as healthy heart and brain protecting fats. If you have a freezer, consider keeping a bag of frozen prawns in there and taking a handful or two out before bed to defrost over night. Easily digestible, they can make a simple salad really delicious and nutritious with a dollop of mayonnaise, some lemon juice and half an avocado. Add a dash of tabasco for a bit of heat! Individually wrapped fish fillets can also found in the freezer section, meaning you don’t have to buy a bigger pack and risk some going to waste. They can go in the oven straight from frozen too.
One of the best sources of protein, brain boosting healthy fats, B vitamins, Vitamin D and minerals is of course an egg. An omelette makes a simple lunch or dinner and there are many variations that combine plenty of brightly coloured vegetables (peppers, red onion, spinach), additional proteins such as cheese and vitamin D containing mushrooms. Egg mayonnaise keeps well in the fridge for a day or 2 and makes a great snack with oatcakes, but you can make eggs the main event by baking them the oven. Try this simple recipe for baked eggs:
Baked Eggs with Ham and Spinach
1 egg per person
A little butter for greasing
1 slice of ham per person
A few baby spinach leaves
2 cherry tomatoes, halved
A dash of milk
1 desserts spoon of grated cheese
A grind of black pepper
Turn the oven up quite high - about 200 degrees or gas mark 6. Butter a single ramekin - or larger over proof dish if serving more than one. Layer up the ham, torn into strips, the cherry tomatoes and spinach leaves and then crack the egg on top, filling in any gaps with a splash of milk. Spring the cheese on top, along with the black pepper. Bake on a tray in the centre of the oven for 8-10 minutes. Leave to cool a little before eating straight from the ramekin, with buttered toast.
When thinking about nutrition in later years, certain specifics come to mind: Celery, for example, is really useful to control blood pressure, but it also has a mild diuretic effect which can help the body release uric acid from panful joints. Dried fruit, such as figs, dates and apricots, combined with a protein such as cheese or nuts, helps prevent the body taking up aluminium, now thought to be a factor in causing senility. Artichokes (easiest to procure in jars), chicory and cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower are excellent liver cleansers, and all fresh fruit and veg contain valuable vitamins, minerals and fibre. A little daily exercise can be a good appetite stimulant too, as well as lifting mood and getting outside will ensure some vitamin D throughout the Winter.
And if you are lacking in inspiration and just fancy a chat about your diet and nutrition, you can find me on 07779295086, or drop me an email here at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Antonia Maguire BA, Dip.NNA, Dip Reflex
Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach