When you were younger, "Let's eat!" may have been your family's two favorite words. But research suggests your parents may not approach mealtime with as much enthusiasm as they once did: A 2008 study showed that when it comes to nutrients like calcium and many vitamins, the average intake for people 70 and older is consistently 33 to 55% below where it should be. And that could have serious consequences - unhealthy weight loss, weaker bones, and even illness, says Michael Freedman, MD, a professor of medicine at New York University. Your parents' lack of interest in food may stem from a variety of factors, such as decreased ability to smell and taste, loneliness, or lack of exercise. But it's easy to boost the nutrition of their meals and whet their appetite. Turn the page for fast, simple moves to share with your parents (or their caregiver) that will help them eat healthier tonight.
"Your sense of taste and smell dulls with age," says Felicia Stoler, a New Jersey-based RD. Pump up any dish's flavor by adding seasoningssuch as spices or herbs rather than salt. Try a squeeze of lemon or lime juice on fish, or sprinkle fresh herbs on pasta. A recent study from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center suggests that the phytochemicals in spices and herbs may help ward off diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers.
Take a pre-meal walk
The easiest way to stoke hunger? Get your parents moving, says Mara Vitolins, RD, a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Light physical activity slightly increases metabolism and can rev a person's appetite. Suggest a daily afternoon walk so they'll feel hungrier by dinner.
Pick the Healthiest Protein
There are a bevy of reasons your parents may be skimping on protein - it can be pricey, and tough meats may be harder for them to chew, says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD. Eggs are a cheap source of the nutrient and take only minutes to cook. Canned wild salmon is less expensive than fillets but is still full of brain-sharpening omega-3 fatty acids. "Salmon burgers made with canned salmon, bread crumbs, egg, and herbs are great for people who claim they don't like fish," Blatner says.
Stock their freezer
If family members live nearby, switch off batch cooking for your parents and freeze leftovers in individual servings. Write the date on the meals and check to make sure they're eaten. Or order healthy frozen dinners online - surf to magickitchen.com or peapod.com—and have them delivered. (Prices are comparable to those in grocery stores.) Pick entrées with no more than 4 g of saturated fat and 800 mg of sodium.
Encourage Regular Sipping
Older people might cut back on beverages to avoid midnight bathroom trips, says Enid Borden, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Association of America. But dehydration has serious risks, such as impaired thinking. Have them aim for about eight glasses of water, juice, milk, or tea during the day, says Blatner - but make sure they have their last drink 3 hours before bed. Installing lights in the hall and clearing a pathway can calm late-night bathroom fears.
Switch to Easy-to-chew Foods
Dental concerns can make parents leery of whole categories of food, Vitolins says. Recommend they go to the dentist; then suggest switching to softer foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, and oatmeal until the problem is solved, says Judy Hannah, PhD, nutrition committee coordinator for the National Institute on Aging. And don't forget dessert! "I suggest ice cream for undernourished people," Stoler says. "It's a surprisingly good source of calcium." Now they can stop worrying about what they put into their mouths and focus on what really counts - how a good meal can nourish body and spirit.