Meal planning and prep made easier
A healthy diet is important at every stage of life, and cooking at home has numerous benefits for cognitive, social, and emotional health. But for older adults suddenly forced into meal preparation due to the loss of a loved one, a separation or divorce, or becoming a caregiver, cooking can be daunting.
“Creating a weekly meal plan is a great way to make prep easier, from the grocery shopping to the meal prep itself,” says Heather Lantry, executive director and owner of Right at Home, an in-home care and assistance company for older adults in Skokie and Chicago.
Yet, cooking and healthful eating can be challenging for older adults, according to a national poll on healthy aging. Of the 2,000 respondents age 50 to 80, many said they enjoy cooking and were confident cooking with basic ingredients. On the other hand, those who self-reported in ‘fair’ or ‘poor physical health’ were less likely to share the same enthusiasm for cooking.
Older adults’ dietary needs, preferences, and medical conditions are vital components to developing appropriate meal plans and strategies. Empowering older adults to cook meals at home gives them more control over the quality of their diets.
Research shows that 42% of older adults who cooked dinner at home at least six days per week described their diet as ‘excellent or very good,’ compared to those who cooked dinner at home less. Grocery shopping and meal planning are also good physical and mental activities that can support overall health.
Break up meal preparation into smaller tasks, so that it doesn’t seem as daunting
“Meal planning can be tackled a few days at a time, which sometimes makes the planning easier for the older adult,” Lantry says. Creating day-of-the-week meal themes, such as Taco Tuesday or Meatless Monday, can simplify the process. Having a regular meal with friends or family can help, too. And bonus: Eating with others has been shown to improve health.
“In my experience, lack of appetite is one of the primary reasons people tell me they do not cook,” says Kristin A.R. Gustashaw, a registered dietitian certified in gerontological nutrition at Rush University Medical Center. Physical problems, such as arthritis, lack of hand and arm strength, stamina, and grip also make cooking more difficult, she adds.
The right kitchen tools and an organized kitchen make a difference. “Try out different utensils that are easier to hold and clean. Invest in a small food processor that can help chop foods, an under-counter electric can opener, and a counter-height sturdy kitchen chair,” Gustashaw says. Plus, keep the most-used items front and center in pantry, cabinets, and refrigerator.
Cooking for one can be challenging, but Gustashaw recommends the buddy system for encouragement. “Planning ahead, shopping with a friend, and splitting up large bulk portions saves money,” she says.
Struggling to open containers? Ask a buddy or care professional for assistance, and organize them in the fridge at the right height.
Don’t like to cook? “Leveraging meal preparation or delivery services, and using a care professional for assistance are all great ways to improve access to regular, healthy meals,” Lantry says. “Our care professionals can prepare several meals in a single visit, as well as preferred snacks that can easily be eaten directly from the refrigerator or microwaved.”
The bottom line: Don’t let lack of experience in the kitchen get you down. There are plenty of cooking resources and support systems.
Check out The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s nutrition resource page, which includes links to convenient recipes, as well as cooking skills and food prep videos: chicagofoodbank.org/nutrition
7 Handy Meal Kits and Delivery Services
Tailor your meals to your lifestyle whether omnivore, vegetarian, paleo, or keto.
*Cost for each varies based on size of order and meal choices.
Home Chef (homechef.com) – Fresh ingredients to make home-cooked meals in 30 minutes or less.
Hello Fresh (hellofresh.com) – Weekly meal kits delivered with fresh ingredients, simple recipes, and nutritional information.
EveryPlate (everyplate.com) – Economical meal kits that use less packaging and simple ingredients.
Fresh & Easy (freshandeasy.com) – Whether you want to microwave, sauté, or grill a meal, this kit offers fresh options for all cooking needs.
Meez Meals (meezmeals.com) – This Chicago-based meal kit service provides recipes, fresh ingredients, and portion-controlled meals.
Hungryroot (hungryroot.com) – Take the quiz, choose from hundreds of recipes, and this meal delivery service will deliver fresh groceries for easy-to-prep meals.
Sunbasket (sunbasket.com) – From breakfast and grab-and-go lunch items, to easy-to-prepare, fresh dinner recipes, this organic meal delivery service simplifies at-home cooking.