A senior co-worker recently reminded me that “aging is not for sissies.” Maintaining health and wellbeing during our golden years can be challenging. As we get older our nutritional requirements remain about the same but because our metabolism is slower, we require fewer calories than younger people. This means that there is less room for regular desserts or other empty-calorie junk foods.
I have always enjoyed developing recipes for special diets. These days I am inventing recipes tailored to my own changing needs: healthy dishes that are low in calories, yet tasty and attractive.
As you reconsider your own diet, keep in mind the benefits of minimizing meat consumption as you age. A large body of research shows the health benefits of vegetarianism. A properly planned vegetarian diet will naturally contain lots of fiber, phytonutrients and vitamins, and less saturated fat. Protein-rich foods such as dairy and meat often contain too much saturated fat, which is not only hard to digest, but strains the liver and kidneys. Most Americans eat more protein than they need, and this can lead to calcium depletion, a common concern among the elderly. A good motto for eating properly is to consume a variety of whole foods in moderation according to Laurel’s Kitchen, A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition.
Here are some tips for food shopping, cooking and eating as you age.
Buy bulk organic foods such as good quality oils and whole grains. Shop regularly, at least once a week, for fresh organic produce and herbs. When a fresh produce item is unavailable, buy it frozen, not canned. Avoid “junk” foods and items that contain transfats and margerine
Keep your menus simple, but varied in texture and color. Minimize the use of salt, sweeteners, and hot spices. Include plenty of vegetables, particularly leafy greens, every day. For the main meal of the day, include at least one dish with lots of liquid.
Eat slowly and not too much. Stop before you are full. Avoid adding extra salt and pepper. Sprinkle lemon juice instead. Drink plenty of fluids after each meal, especially water.
Shopping, preparing and eating food with your loved ones can add joy to your meals. If you or your partner haven’t cooked much in the past due to a busy work life, now is the time to learn to cook and share. If you are a senior care-giver, ask the person you are caring for to help you select and prepare the food. Shopping for food can be interesting and entertaining. Selecting colorful vegetables, putting them in a bountiful basket, bringing them to your kitchen, arranging them attractively on the counter in a delicious visual rainbow can offer immense pleasure.
Plan your menu so that some preparation can be done ahead of time, and the final dish assembled quickly when you are ready to eat. This will save you time and energy, and keep you from snacking on empty calories while you are waiting for a meal to be ready.
If you live alone, at least once a week share a meal with a friend or family member. If this includes shopping, preparing and eating together, all the better. If you must go solo, treat yourself as you would a guest. Set the table and serve yourself an elegant candle-lit dinner, or spread your lunch out on a cloth like a picnic. Be sure to sit down to eat, and savor your food.
Some of the most common complaints among older folks are gaining weight easily, even while eating lighter meals; trouble digesting food, particularly after dinner; lack of appetite; sensitivity to hot spicy foods; and food intolerance or allergy to foods containing dairy or gluten. All of these concerns can be managed with modification in menu planning and food choices.
Older people tend to be less active. At the same time we need to exercise more as our metabolism is slowing.
Know the calorie content of the foods you eat regularly. Adjust your portions, and modify your cooking methods to reduce fat.
Food that you previously enjoyed may now cause indigestion. This is common as we age because our stomach produces less of the acids necessary for digestion.
Here are some simple tips to improve digestion: Eat your most substantial meal at mid-day, and take a long afternoon walk. Keep the evening meal light. Eat at least one hour before bed time. Take a short walk after dinner. Hydrate your body throughout the day by drinking water.
Some seniors complain that they often do not feel hungry. Regular exercise stimulates the appetite and some herbal teas can help. We eat with our eyes and other senses too, so food preparation can promote an appetite with the joy of fresh smells and vibrant colors.
Many elders may suddenly discover that they are sensitive or allergic to foods that never gave them trouble before. Dairy, gluten and even certain vegetables such as onions and peppers can suddenly cause severe reactions. And of course, folks with diabetes or other chronic illness need to be very careful about the foods they eat. In addition to a medical practitioner’s advice, knowing your body’s likes and dislikes can be useful in managing food sensitivities. Many local health food stores carry a wide choice of specialty foods that are gluten-free, sugar-free, or dairy free. Certainly the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce department will offer something any sensitive person can enjoy.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager and co-owner of Other Avenues, a health-food store.
Daal Chowder with Salsa
½ cup tomato salsa (use the recipe below, or purchase fresh salsa)
4 cups water
1 cup red lentils, well rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon grated or minced fresh ginger root
1 cup corn kernels, frozen and thawed or freshly scraped from an ear of corn
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt to taste
Boil the water and add the lentils. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.
1 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal (split black gram)
Few curry leaves
Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the salsa, ginger and corn. Stir-fry for a few minutes to combine the flavors. Add this mixture to the cooking lentils and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and salt. Serve hot with rice, tortilla or bread.
1 dozen corn tortillas (can be dry or stale)
A few tablespoons or as needed canola, safflower or olive oil
3 cups of homemade salsa (see recipe) or purchased fresh salsa
3 cups shredded jack cheese or vegan meltable cheese substitute
1 cup firm tofu, crumbled
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare salsa as per the recipe below.
Spread a teaspoon of oil in a frying pan and lightly fry the tortillas one at a time on both sides until they are soft. Add more oil as needed, but just enough to moisten the pan. Do not allow the tortillas to become too oily or crisp. Cut the tortillas into one inch wide strips.
Lightly oil the bottom of a casserole dish. Spread a cup of salsa evenly over the bottom of the dish. Spread a layer of tortillas strips, reserving half of them for another layer. Cover the strips with half of the crumbled tofu and a cup of cheese or vegan cheese substitute, spreading it evenly. Repeat a layer of tortilla strips, tofu, cheese and sauce. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Cover and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for a few minutes longer until the top is golden brown. Allow the casserole to cool for a few minutes before cutting it into squares. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve.
2½ cups finely chopped fresh tomatoes
½ cup finely chopped green onion, including some green tops
¼ cup cilantro, stems removed, leaves finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno pepper (seeds and inner veins removed)
or 2 tablespoons minced bell pepper (for a non-spicy version)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
Chop all of the salsa ingredients small, using a sharp knife. You can use a food processor, but be careful not to over-puree.
Combine the ingredients and mix thoroughly.