Healthy Cooking to Satisfy Seniors Across Cultures

Senior Nutrition a Growing Concern

Senior couple eating dinner
As seniors age their taste buds change and so does their food preferences. Couple that with strong culutral traditions around eating and you can see the challenge in assuring seniors get the proper nutrition they need. Alto Images/Stocksy United

When Emma Fish, nutritionist for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), took on Tanya as a patient, she knew that getting the Russian-born woman to cut back on her favorite high-fat dishes would be a challenge. Being of Russian heritage herself, Emma understands the eating patterns of clients from that region. “Russians don’t like to be forced to do anything,” she explains. “So when I introduce them to new foods and healthier meal preparation, it has to be a slow process—education first, then little changes.” Let's look at tips for healthy cooking and eating in culturally diverse senior populations.

Make Small, Gradual Changes

Whatever her clients’ backgrounds, Emma has learned that making small, gradual modifications to the foods they know and love, in a way that’s consistent with their cultural traditions, is the key to helping them eat healthier. Fortunately, Emma and other VNSNY nutritionists have a secret weapon: the home health aides (HHAs) who care for many of their clients on a weekly basis. These HHAs often play a central role in shopping for their clients’ food and preparing their meals. In their training, HHAs learn to select and prepare foods that are part of their clients’ cultural cuisine, and to work with the organization’s nutritionists to ensure that these foods are also appropriate to their health needs.

One thing HHAs are taught is that any changes in diet must take their clients’ preferences into account. “If the client doesn’t find their food appealing, it doesn’t matter how healthy it is,” notes Emma.

“When I work with our HHAs, I always encourage them to ask clients about their food traditions, including the foods they eat and how they share meals with friends and families.”

Because elderly clients often have multiple chronic conditions, Emma also teaches HHAs to identify healthy alternatives that can be used to tailor meals to a client’s health needs.

When introducing new foods to Tanya, Emma began with small substitutions that became the foundation for long-term changes. “Because the Russian diet is high in fat, I start by suggesting things like using avocado instead of butter, or baking instead of frying. I’ll often do a demonstration at the client’s house so the client, their HHA and other caregivers can see how it’s done.”

Healthy Cooking Tips

  • Use healthy oils for cooking. “Olive oil is ideal for salad dressings,” says Emma, “while canola oil or coconut oil are great for pan sautéing food.”
  • Steam instead of frying. Fill a steam basket over lightly boiling water with any vegetable (broccoli or cauliflower are good options), and steam for 2 to 5 minutes. Any longer, and the vegetable begins losing nutritional value.
  • Choose baked sweet potatoes versus Idaho (white) potatoes. Sweet potatoes are packed with Vitamin A (essential for bone health), and don’t cause your blood sugar to rise as rapidly after they’re consumed. For additional flavor, top with plain yogurt instead of sour cream.
  • Keep plates colorful. Bright fruits and vegetables enhance food’s appeal and ensure you’re getting a full range of nutrients. “Many cultures have rich native fruits that brighten the plate and add great nutritional value,” notes Emma.
  • For a healthy protein dish, choose a few ounces of chicken or fish prepared by baking, steaming or boiling.
  • Instead of using cane sugar or artificial sugar as sweeteners, try small amounts of healthier coconut sugar or brown sugar.
  • For a healthy dessert, Emma recommends a fruit smoothie made with bananas, strawberries or another favorite fruit, or low-fat yogurt containing small pieces of cut-up fruit.

For optimal nutrition, Emma also recommends a good soup—“You can include beef or chicken, or go vegetarian with ingredients like potatoes, cabbage, rice, buckwheat, chick peas, and greens—all cooked together for about two hours.”

Often, Emma notes, clients have healthy foods engrained in their traditions, but have adopted methods of preparation that dilute these foods’ nutritional properties. “The key is to continue eating these foods, but steam, bake or grill them instead.”

The one essential rule, she adds, is to always respect the client’s cultural background. “By taking an interest in the client’s culture, and using this connection to have an open conversation about food and nutrition, we’re taking the first important step in helping that client adopt a long-term, healthy diet.”

Jennifer Leeflang, Senior Vice President, Partners in Care

Jennifer Leeflang, RN, heads Partners in Care, a licensed home care agency which is a part of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), the nation's largest not for profit home and community care organization.

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