Eating provides pleasure and nourishment. Meal times provide an opportunity to relax and talk with others. Eating well each day helps you stay active and healthy. Some older people, especially those who live alone, lose interest in eating and have problems buying and preparing food. A poor diet can result in malnutrition, feeling tired and poor health. A few simple habits for grocery shopping, cooking and eating can make life easier and more enjoyable.
Dietary Guidelines for Older Australians.
The Dietary Guidelines for Older Australians (Australian Government, National Health and Medical Research Council Publication) provide information about eating well as you age. These guidelines are:
- Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods
- Keep active to maintain muscle strength and a healthy body weight
- Eat at least three meals every day
- Care for your food: prepare and store it correctly
- Eat plenty of vegetables (including legumes) and fruit
- Eat plenty of cereals, breads and pastas
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat
- Drink adequate amounts of water and/or other fluids
- If you drink alcohol, limit your intake
- Choose foods low in salt and use salt sparingly
- Include foods high in calcium
- Use added sugars in moderation
Having a good plan for shopping is an important step in eating well.
Start by planning all of your meals and snacks for the week; include drinks and soups too. Make choices that are easy and enjoyable for you. List what you need. How often you are able to get to the shop? What needs to be bought at a large shop and stored, and what might be easily bought during the week at the local butcher or green grocer?
What can you manage at one time? Divide your list up and make it achievable. If you are short of time, reliant on others to take you to the shop, or care for someone while you go, this preparation is even more important. Some shops offer home-delivery, and some will also take a phone or internet order. Check the delivery price first.
Keep the essentials on hand for when you can’t or don’t want to go out and shop. This might include milk, flour, sugar, rice, cereals, canned or frozen fish, meat, canned or frozen fruit and vegetables and soups. Bread freezes well and skim-milk powder, powdered custard, canned evaporated milk and UHT (long life) milk can be stored easily.
It is not uncommon in Australia for people to run out of money for food from time to time. Good knowledge and skills about buying, storing and preparing food can help to avoid this. Choose foods which are less expensive but nutritious and avoid buying expensive foods when you have the money. This could lead to not having enough money for food later in the fortnight.
A good rule of thumb is to spend the most money on foods that you should eat most of, such as breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables. Spend a moderate amount on dairy products and meats, and spend least on fats and oils, and ‘extras’ such as sweets, biscuits, chips, cakes, pies and pasties.
Think about storage too. A large package may be cheaper per unit but it is not a bargain if most of the contents have to be thrown away. Divide and freeze, or store if possible or go halves with a friend. Frozen vegetables are a good food choice and you can use small amounts as needed.
If an item at the meat or fresh produce counter is too large, ask an assistant to re-package it. Check ‘use by’ dates – is there enough time to use the item before the nutritional and keeping quality deteriorates? Less expensive, generic brand products are often good choices. Check food labels; the ingredient contained in the largest amount is listed first. Look for those products with less additives (such as salt, sugar and other chemicals) and more of what you are intending to buy!
Safely storing and handling foods.
Older people and particularly those with underlying health conditions are more likely to fall ill and develop complications from diseases carried in food. Lessen the risk: avoid keeping food at room temperature – this includes food which is thawing or cooling. Food kept refrigerated, and food which is steaming hot is least likely to be harmful. Clean kitchens, food preparation surfaces, dishcloths and hands are important in staying healthy.
Some foods are more likely to be risky than others, such as chicken, fish and other seafood, eggs, meat, pate, dairy foods (especially soft cheeses), cooked rice and pre-prepared salads. Be especially careful when storing and re-heating these. Make sure chicken and meat is cooked thoroughly. Avoid spreading bacteria normally found in these foods to other foods. Use different chopping boards, wipe down food preparation areas and avoid juice, such as that from thawing chicken, dripping on to other food.
Remember that contaminated food may not look, feel or smell any different to food which is still OK.
Make choices for meals that are healthy and enjoyable, but are easy for you to prepare. Save the more complicated options for when you have a special occasion, or time and energy to cook them.
Prepare larger amounts of foods that you enjoy, divide left-overs into individual servings, write contents and date on each package and freeze for later use. A microwave oven is handy for reheating.
One-pot dishes, such as stews and casseroles are easy options, as are cold meals such as sliced meat and salad with fresh bread. These are no less nutritious than more complex dishes.
Try new recipes from newspapers, magazines, supermarkets and television shows if they appeal to you – you might find a new favourite. Try cooking vegetables and cuts of meat that you haven’t had before – the butcher or greengrocer can give you advice on easy ways to cook these if you need it.
Avoid excess fat by trimming meat before cooking. Grill, bake, boil or panfry without adding fat. Drain off cooked fat. Include beans and lentils in stews to boost the fibre content. To preserve vitamins, do not overcook vegetables, eat them raw or lightly cooked, stir-fry them briefly in a little oil, steam or microwave them.
Food should be enjoyed and not just needed to live!
Invite a friend for a meal – it’s enjoyable and the invitation may be returned. Eat in pleasant and different places such as the living room, park or verandah. Eat your meals to coincide with your favourite radio or television program.
If appetite is poor it is a good idea to eat small amounts regularly, having healthy snacks in between the regular three meals. Use times when visitors arrive to snack and enjoy eating together.
Cheese and low-fat crackers, low-fat yoghurt, custard, milk drinks and smoothies, fruit (tinned, dried and frozen) and nuts are nutritious snacks. Breakfast cereals such as Weetbix, AllBran and instant oats can be used as a snack during the day. Low fat instant noodles, no-added-sugar fruit loaf or vegetable sticks with dips add variety.
Why don’t you visit a market and bring something home that you like to eat?
Useful contacts and resources
The nutritionists at a Community Health Centre nearest to you
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand for food safety information, tel. 1300 652 166, email firstname.lastname@example.org or website www.foodstandards.gov.au
Australian Government Seniors Portal