Encouraging healthy eating in older adults

Learn how you can help your parent maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet.

July 01, 2022

8 min read

Shot of a cheerful group of senior people talking and enjoying breakfast together at home

Are you a big fan of turmeric? Is salmon common in your household? Does the inside of your refrigerator look like an organic produce aisle? You can tell a lot about someone based on the contents of their cupboard and pantry. Spices, mealtime staples and the type of produce we choose indicates our culture, our upbringing and our socioeconomic status. It may also hint at our current state of health.

If you peek into kitchens and observe the food choices of seniors across America, you may find a stockpile of packaged food, canned soup or beans and store-bought frozen dinners. This is especially common if the person requires assistance with daily activities and/or lives alone.

Quiz: How to Tell if Your Parent is Getting the Proper Nutrition


“Older adults don’t have to make a meal to feed the rest of the family,” said John Hetzel, Vice President of Culinary at Atria Senior Living. “It’s easy to just grab a box of crackers out of the cupboard, sit down in front of the TV and eat, opposed to making yourself a full meal.”

These types of foods are more convenient than freshly cooked meals, but they aren’t always the healthiest options. Packed with sodium, sugar, unhealthy fat and empty calories, these items contribute to malnutrition, which is very common among older adults.

Hetzel sheds light on malnutrition in older adults and provides helpful tips on how to help your parent maintain a well-balanced diet.

Why are older adults more at risk for poor nutrition?

Poor nutrition or malnutrition is commonly misunderstood as simply not having enough to eat. However, malnutrition in the elderly population is more complex than that. Not eating the right foods or the inability to absorb nutrients from foods can cause malnutrition as well. This can make it difficult for older adults to meet nutritional goals.

Generally speaking, caloric needs actually decrease with age, but nutrient needs change and become more important to fulfill. In other words, quantity goes down, but quality must go up.

Depending on varying factors unique to one’s health, it is easy suffer from undernutrition (becoming very frail, weak and underweight,) or overnutrition (becoming overweight, diabetic and often fatigued).

What factors might impact a senior’s appetite and nutritional intake?


  • Exercise and activity – Seniors who are more active are generally healthier and able to avoid or control chronic health issues.
  • Medication – Prescription drugs may alter sense of taste or appetite.
  • Mobility – The inability to walk and grocery shop, stand and meal prep, or handle cooking and eating utensils due to Parkinson’s or arthritis can impact food choices and lead to a poor diet.
  • Sensation of thirst – The desire to drink fluids decreases as we age, making it easy for older adults to become dehydrated quickly.
  • Loss of taste and smell – The perception of flavor and aroma declines naturally as age progresses, but sometimes illness and even cognitive impairment can be the cause.
  • Cognitive impairment – Dementia and malnutrition go hand in hand. Cognitive impairment affects the way we recognize food on the palate and can cause difficulty swallowing. Clinically, this is called dysphagia. Cognitive impairment is also made worse by poor nutrition and dehydration.
  • Changes in mood – Depression or loneliness could cause overeating or undereating.

What are possible signs of malnutrition in older adults?

The importance of proper nutrition for seniors cannot be overstated. Not only will a diet high in processed foods exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure – it can cause obesity, cardiovascular disease and poor bone health. Older adults who are malnourished are more frail, have an increased fall risk and slower recovery times, and are frequently hospitalized.

Do you suspect your parent isn’t receiving the proper nourishment? Look for these signs.

Signs and symptoms of malnutrition in elderly


  • Sudden or unintentional weight gain or loss
  • Edema, especially in the hands, face and feet
  • Obviously ill-fitting clothes or shoes
  • Food aversions or complaints about the taste or smell of food
  • Exhibited loss of appetite or interest in food
  • Excessive food consumption due to memory loss or not remembering eating
  • Frequently coughing, gagging or choking while eating
  • Lack of energy or often experiencing fatigue
  • Little to no movement in day-to-day routine
  • Weak immune system and long recovery times
  • Frequent hospitalizations due to falls, illness and infections
  • Rotten produce and expired food items in the pantry and refrigerator
  • Reliance upon processed foods
  • Infrequent bowel movements

Ask a healthcare provider how to help improve senior nutrition

Don’t wait to engage your parent’s doctor for advice or intervention regarding their nutrition. Malnutrition in older adults is easy to identify but may be difficult to recover from if it goes on too long. During the appointment, discuss regularly monitoring your parent’s weight in a helpful and noninvasive way. Inquire about modified exercise techniques or ways to achieve attainable activity goals.

Ask about comprehensive health screenings to identify vitamin or mineral deficiencies and pinpoint any underlying conditions that contribute to malnutrition. Ask for a medication review. Inquire about the best diet for seniors, especially if your parent needs to follow a specific diet because of health conditions. Older adults suffering from unintentional weight loss are often trying to adhere to a strict, therapeutic diet and may benefit from having more food-choice freedom.

Before purchasing any meal replacement shakes ask your parent’s healthcare provider what is the best nutritional and protein drink for seniors. Many of these items are high in sugar, and relying too heavily on them could cause digestive issues.

When seeking a solution to improve your parent’s nutrition, tap into all available resources. If there are any concerns related to chewing or swallowing, your parent’s doctor may refer a speech pathologist to investigate whether or not your parent has dysphasia, which could put them at a higher risk of weight loss due to dehydration and an inability to consume enough food.

Additionally, occupational therapists are extremely knowledgeable about techniques and devices to address any motor skills challenges your parent may have. Adaptive devices, such as built-up utensils, divided plates and two-handled cups, can help your parent eat and drink independently. If your parent doesn’t utilize occupational therapy, ask their healthcare provider how you can get access to such services.

Use this helpful guide and quiz to have a successful conversation with your parent’s healthcare provider regarding nutrition.

Create a recipe for success at home

When asked about the best diet for seniors, Hetzel suggests minimally processed foods.

“Immediately go to fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, things like that. Natural, non-processed foods that are not high in sugar or calories,” he says.

Ask your parent to help you create a shopping list, making sure you add high-protein options to help prevent the loss of lean muscle mass. Seafood, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, beans, peas, lentils, meat, poultry and eggs are great sources of protein and high-energy food for seniors.

Other healthy food options for seniors are those high in fiber, like whole grain cereal, brown rice and oats. Help combat thirst by ordering small, eight-ounce bottles of water, unsweetened fruit juices and low-fat or fat-free milk.

If your parent is up to it, invite them to go grocery shopping with you. Not only will this present an opportunity for togetherness, it’s also a way to inspire physical activity.

Many grocery stores now offer online shopping services with the option of delivery or pick-up if shopping together is not an option.

Meal prepping together is a fun and easy way to help create healthy meals you know your parent will enjoy. Try new recipes together or recreate a dish that your parent loves.

“The one way to make sure your parent is eating is to offer something they like to eat,” Hetzel says.

Nothing inspires the appetite like enjoying a meal together. Consider family dinners or family lunch a regular part of your schedule when possible. After the meal, ask your parent to join you for a short walk to get them moving.

If three large meals overwhelm your parent, encourage smaller, more frequent meals. If your parent likes to graze throughout the day, encourage snacks that are healthy and tasty. Hummus and pita chips or fresh vegetables, sliced bell peppers and guacamole, fruit with cottage cheese and a dash of cinnamon, and popcorn without butter are delectable options that are easy to prepare.

The culinary experience at Atria

Residents at Atria are encouraged to dine together as much as possible.

“It’s a part of a holistic approach to care. Folks being in a dining room, being with friends, making a social connection – it all encourages health,” Hetzel said.

Pair companionship with tasty, made-from-scratch meals and you have a delicious recipe for healthy, flavorful living.

Each day in Atria kitchens across the country, chefs are preparing fresh, flavorful meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner that meet the nutritional needs of older adults – even those who have special dietary restrictions.

“You’re getting a mix of proteins; you’re getting a mix of vegetables and different fruits. It’s a nice, well-rounded, nutritionally balanced menu,” Hetzel said. “A registered dietitian signs off on all of our menus.”

If you’re curious how Atria Senior Living helps nourish older adults with made-to-order meals – as well as other discreet, personalized care options – reach out to us. You’re always welcome to visit for lunch with your parent or even one of the community’s Resident Ambassadors.

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Not sure where to start?

There’s a lot to learn when you become a caregiver, and you may be wondering where to start. Fortunately, many of the experiences you’ll encounter are common, and we've pulled together resources to help you along your journey.

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