Did  you know that more than 10 million adults aged 50 and older are at risk of going hungry every day? Food insecurity among seniors costs $130.5 billion every year, according to estimates from the AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger. Even among those not experiencing food insecurity, many seniors fail to get adequate nutrition, which can have a dramatic impact on energy and overall health.
As the human body ages, there are changes that make it more difficult to eat a balanced, healthy diet. Certain conditions can make it harder to do the cooking or for your parent to feed himself. Changes in taste and smell plus loss of appetite frequently limit seniors’ food choices and leave them turning to fewer healthful foods. At the same time, nutrient needs change with aging, with the ability to absorb and use nutrients becoming less efficient, underscoring the need to make sure aging parents are eating well.
That’s why, if you’re wondering how to care for your parents, this might be the perfect spot for getting started. Meal planning can make caregiving easier by simplifying the process of helping aging parents fuel their bodies.
Understanding Your Aging Parents‘ Nutrition Needs
Experts  at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging created a modified food pyramid for older adults, stressing the importance of specific foods and nutrients, including physical activity and prioritizing water intake. Other researchers have found that older adults aren’t getting enough protein in their diet, possibly because they are skipping meals.
Federal guidelines recommend eating at least 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. That means that a 160-pound adult should eat at least 57 grams of protein every day, unless doctors recommend otherwise. Keep in mind, protein intake is an important part of maintaining muscle mass, which adults lose at an average rate of 8 percent every 10 years until they reach the age of 70, and 15 percent every 10 years after that, according to U.S. News & World Report.
It’s also important to keep in mind that your parents’ metabolism isn’t the same as when they were younger. As the basal metabolic rate decreases naturally with age, the energy requirement for older adults decreases too. Added to the decrease in physical activity that most older adults experience, the need to control portion size becomes increasingly important to maintain a healthy weight.
Tips for Helping Aging Parents Eat a Healthy Diet
The  beauty of participating in meal planning is you can encourage your parents to eat nutrient-dense foods that pack a punch without excess calories. Additionally, for many seniors, the sense of thirst diminishes with age, making it increasingly important to make sure they drink water often to avoid dehydration – a health risk that’s often overlooked. For many seniors once they’re thirsty they’re already experiencing mild dehydration.
Likewise, try to steer them away from foods with empty calories. Minimize food including candy, soda, and chips in favor of foods such as:
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains, including whole-grain bread, oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice
- Low-fat dairy or fortified dairy alternatives
- Lean meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs
- Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds
Talk About Challenges to Eating Healthy
Before  diving into meal planning, it helps to understand if there’s anything preventing your parents from eating a healthy diet. For example, if they’re having trouble chewing they might need to get evaluated by a dentist. If they’re experiencing a loss of appetite, there might be an underlying condition or medication side effect at play. It might be tough to broach the subject of aging parents and finances if they’re on a fixed budget and having a hard time managing their money, and that could be another stumbling block. One in six seniors experience food insecurity because of money matters, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
Meal Planning Tips
Once  you’ve been able to address any problems, you can start getting into the swing of meal planning. Start by sitting down once a week with your parents to plan the meals for the week. This will streamline the number of grocery trips required while giving you and your parents a chance to talk about what they feel like eating for the week ahead and making them feel empowered as part of the solution. Additional meal planning tips include:
- Choosing varied recipes for the week that incorporate foods and flavors they enjoy while meeting their dietary needs and any restrictions they may have
- Prep ingredients for the week, making big batches of brown rice or quinoa, and washing and chopping veggies and placing them in sealed containers in the refrigerator
- Cook make ahead meals that can be stored in serving size containers in the refrigerator or freezer
- It’s not uncommon for aging parents to go through changes with their teeth and gums, which can make chewing and biting into hard foods difficult. Cooking soft foods like smoothies and shakes, mashed potatoes, grits, oatmeal, tender meats and flaky fish can help
One [CA6] in five seniors reports feeling loneliest while eating meals. Arrange your schedule to eat with your aging parent and invite other family members, friends and neighbors to break bread together. Not only will it help ease those feelings of loneliness, it can also help your aging parents make healthy decisions.