Caregivers’ Guide to Healthy Recipes for Seniors
Should Grandma have a ham sandwich? Our experts answer this and other questions about choosing the right foods for seniors (and share 22 easy recipes).
When I was little, I had a soup bowl with a cartoon elephant at the bottom. If I was being fussy, Grandma would urge me to save the animal, and I’d dig in till I could see it again. Now the tables have turned — I’m cooking for my grandmother.
The thing is, she happens to be one of the pickiest eaters I've ever met, and that’s often the elephant in the dining room. Past hardships molded her into a resourceful home chef truly worth her salt. At 92, though not exactly the picture of health, Grandma remains as tough as the candy she’s supposed to avoid and sharp as her beloved kitchen knife, honed tiny over the years. She’s not a child, however, and I wouldn’t dare trick her into healthy eating.
The challenge is choosing simple, healthy, easy recipes she can enjoy — but how do I go about doing that? If you’re also taking care of older adults, you might be asking yourself the same question.
So, I sought advice from two nutrition experts with vast experience caring for seniors. Follow along as I share some of the most meaningful and actionable insights gleaned from these interviews. Then explore 22 easy meal ideas for the seniors in your life, from breakfast to dinner to protein shakes and more.
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How to get seniors to eat healthy
I turned to Certified Culinary Medical Specialist Dr. Erin Presant of The Medicine of Yum and to Registered Dietitian Steven Menegus for advice on what to cook for seniors. Here’s what they had to say.
What is a healthy approach to easy dieting?
If the seniors in your life are anything like my grandma, they’re probably set in their ways. Dr. Presant believes it’s never too late to rethink one’s eating habits, though. The good news is it might involve a few simple (and tasty) adjustments as opposed to a complete overhaul.
For those who feel overwhelmed, Presant suggests starting small — adding one healthy ingredient is already an improvement. “It’s all about progress, not perfection, since there is no one ideal diet. Do your best to make incremental changes to establish new routines,” she says.
Menegus, RD, is also a fan of streamlining an existing menu rather than scrapping it altogether. He encourages us to see whether it’s possible to keep serving some of the dishes the seniors in our care like. This approach can prove particularly motivating for those who’ve been into certain delicacies since childhood (aspic, anyone?). Cutting out such comfort foods entirely might be unnecessary if they can fit into an overall wholesome lifestyle.
To Menegus, it’s all about striking a balance between the healthy foods older adults need and the indulgences they love. He recommends first evaluating which components of the diet could use tweaking. “For example, if someone’s having a lot of fast and pre-prepared food, the goal should be to start subbing in some whole food, healthy meals,” he explains. “For someone who’s, say, eating too much sugar, we should look for swaps to replace at least some of it,” he continues.
What are healthy eating habits for seniors?
While meal planning for seniors with medical conditions calls for a hefty dose of customization, some strategies work for most scenarios.
“The Mediterranean diet is a good place for most seniors to start, as it has plenty of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and other healthy carbohydrates,” Menegus says. “There’s also some flexibility for those with medical conditions to choose recipes for their specific needs.” He generally recommends including healthy protein sources along with fruits and vegetables in each meal and — depending on the situation — adding other foods such as dairy and starches.
Dr. Presant agrees with these suggestions and has compiled them into an easy-to-follow food intake list for seniors:
Eat less red meat, fewer processed foods
Eat more fish and — throughout your day — fruits and veggies
Limit processed meats as much as possible (those transformed through salting, smoking, curing, fermentation, or other processes)
How to maintain a healthy weight
Though eating less and losing weight are important objectives for many as they offer undeniable health benefits, it’s not always the case.
“An issue some seniors struggle with is maintaining weight or muscle,” Menegus points out. To boost their overall calorie intake and prevent further weight loss, he suggests higher-calorie foods. For example, if your older loved one’s health allows it (and if their doctor or registered dietitian approves), certain cuts of meat, potato salad, nuts, or full-fat dairy like Greek yogurt could be among the options to consider. If not, protein shakes are a great supplement or substitute for the less healthy choices.
“One of the reasons some seniors have trouble getting the calories they need is diminished appetite,” Menegus says. “That can often be attributed to a loss of taste due to deteriorating taste buds, which tends to occur with age. So, flavorful foods like fruit or seasonings such as garlic, onions, basil, and parsley can help.”
Dental issues can also make it difficult for seniors to chew and swallow. The solution Menegus proposes are softer dishes like soups and stews.
5 common illnesses and the positive role food can play
Here’s Dr. Presant’s food intake breakdown for the five health conditions people over 65 most commonly suffer from. There may be specific nutritional requirements, depending on the type of ailment and the treatment the patient is undergoing, so be sure to double-check with their doctor.
Health goals: Achieve and maintain healthy blood vessels, low blood pressure, and low cholesterol.
Healthy eating suggestions:
DO eat a Mediterranean-type diet, including whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and other vegetable fats.
DON’T consume highly processed or canned foods (too much salt), red or processed meats, butter or other animal/tropical fats (including coconut oil), refined grains (white pastas and bread), or soda.
Use in moderation: eggs (even if you have high cholesterol — they’re not as bad for your health as we may have once thought), coffee, tea, and alcohol.
Health goals: Help the patient’s body fight against the disease, with healthy eating recommendations organized below by the most common types of cancer.
Healthy eating suggestions for lung cancer:
DO stick to a plant-forward diet.
DON’T eat large amounts of charred meats or certain veggies heated to high temperatures (french fries), as evidence shows they may contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical.
Healthy eating suggestions for breast cancer:
DO opt for a diet rich in whole foods.
DON’T drink alcohol.
Healthy eating suggestions for prostate cancer:
DO eat more fatty fish and a variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
DON’T eat large amounts of meat (especially processed, like cold cuts, sausages, and bacon).
Healthy eating suggestions for colorectal cancer:
DO eat lots of fiber, soybeans, broccoli, and almonds for plant-based calcium, and fatty fish for the vitamin D (sun exposure, a natural source of vitamin D, when prolonged, may increase the risk of melanoma).
DON’T eat processed/cured meats such as salami, bologna, bacon, and hot dogs, or drink alcohol.
Health goals: Reduce overall chronic inflammation.
Healthy eating suggestions:
DO eat a diet full of fresh foods and those high in omega-3 fatty acids, like chia seeds, walnuts, fish, and Brussels sprouts.
DON’T eat a diet high in refined foods, saturated fat, meat, or sugar. Avoid trans fats, which are found mainly in fried and other ultra-processed foods (cookies, chips).
Health goals: Maintain healthy blood vessels and control blood pressure.
Healthy eating suggestions:
DO eat lots of plant-based foods, olive oil, fish for the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, poultry, colorful fruits and berries rich in antioxidants and flavonoids, and moderate amounts of dairy (mostly fermented as with yogurt).
DON’T eat highly refined, fried, or ultra-processed foods, refined sugars, or large amounts of red meat.
Health goals: Maintain overall brain health for prevention and get enough vitamin B12 and folate. Low levels can contribute to cognitive problems, so do consult a doctor.
Healthy eating suggestions:
DO eat plenty of fish, leafy greens (spinach and kale), and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for the antioxidants, flavonoids, and other healthy brain compounds.
DON’T eat ultra-processed foods or a diet high in sodium or red meat.
Breakfast and brunch recipes for seniors
Menegus recommends these five healthy recipes by cookbook author Sara Mellas. These Yummly original recipes feature a combo of traditional breakfast staples and wholesome ingredients, which makes for a familiar feel and great nutrition.
Here’s a great way to sneak some greens into breakfast or brunch, especially in the fall when broccoli is freshly harvested. This straightforward recipe provides protein, fiber, and dairy. Just remember to poke the bottom of the frozen pie shell several times with a fork. Before baking, cover the edges of the shell with pie guards or foil to avoid burning the crust. This delicious veggie-filled quiche keeps in the fridge for up to three days — and what’s better than enjoying a healthy meal? That’s right: enjoying three healthy meals!
This easy dish can benefit those who need more protein and calories with fewer carbs — for example, people with diabetes or sarcopenia (muscle loss). The recipe calls for nonstick cooking spray instead of oil to fry the sausage, which you then whisk together with eggs and cheese. If you want to avoid sausage, consider subbing in mushrooms. Pour the mixture into a baking dish and pop it in the oven. To check if the food is done, stick a toothpick in it. If it comes out clean, the casserole is ready to serve.
Want some protein without the extra cholesterol? Go with these quick egg white breakfast muffins. Cook the vegetables in a skillet with water to give them a tender texture. Distribute them evenly in the egg whites, pour the mixture into the muffin pan cavities, and stick it in the oven. Use the toothpick hack to check if they’re done. To remove, run a knife around the edge of each muffin and lift up at an angle. These protein-and-veggie bombs taste fantastic with fruit alongside.
This is a casserole model for a low-calorie breakfast featuring protein, dairy, and plenty of vegetables. Cook the diced veggies in a skillet with water until tender. Whisk them with creamy Greek yogurt and egg whites along with sausage and shredded cheese, then bake. Check for doneness using a toothpick and serve. Sara Mellas suggests cutting this creation into squares; I actually prefer spooning it right out of the baking dish, though my grandma disapproves.
Mix it up with this fast, healthy lacto-ovo vegetarian option (includes dairy and eggs). Saute the vegetables with black beans in olive oil, scramble the eggs, sprinkle some cheese, and roll it all tightly into tortillas, tucking the corners. Place seam-side down on the baking sheet and pop in the oven. I’m not a morning person, but the appetizing aroma from the cilantro, cumin, and coriander wakes me right up. Of course, these burritos are delicious with salsa and sliced avocado. You can store the leftovers in the freezer in foil or plastic wrap for up to two months.
Lunch and dinner recipes for seniors
My family and I are more about lunch than dinner, especially my grandmother, who tends to eat light in the evening. So, we’ve selected some exciting healthy options with that in mind. Sometimes, I’ll cook one of these for lunch, and then if it’s a hit, serve it for dinner, too.
This effortless dish will keep you and your loved ones warm on a chilly day. Shredded chicken and gooey melted cheddar bring the protein and dairy while the garlic powder adds flavor. When your impressed loved ones ask how you made a simple casserole taste so amazing, consider not telling them the secret ingredient is store-bought cream of chicken soup. This meal can benefit people with osteoporosis or sarcopenia. It’s a delicious way to load up on broccoli — and it comes together in about 30 minutes.
The prep for this hearty vegetable stew by culinary instructor Jennifer Clair is fairly quick, and the slow cooker takes care of the rest. The beauty of this recipe is you can easily make it vegan by using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth and olive oil instead of butter. Word to the wise: Add the spicy harissa little by little, depending on how much kick you want. When it’s done, taste to see if the dish needs more lemon juice, then top with cilantro and serve with couscous.
This recipe boasts a long list of healthy ingredients like kale and carrots, and even the beef it calls for is extra lean. Talk about wholesome comfort food! The prep takes a little bit of easy from-scratch magic, after which you put the mixture into the slow cooker and go about your day. When you return to this classic ready-to-eat meal, you’ll agree it was worth the wait.
Any small white beans such as baby limas or cannellini will work well for this simple recipe by food editor Tina Ujlaki. The various veggies and seasonings create a strong flavor profile and make for a healthy, hearty soup. The low-sodium chicken broth base helps, too. You’ll know the dish is ready when the beans are tender and the meat falls off the bone. Top with parsley, take a moment to savor the aroma, then dig in.
The name of this easy entree by Sara Mellas describes it accurately. It’s an excellent choice for those who need the protein and want to cut down on carbohydrates. Creamy Greek yogurt is what makes these chicken breasts extra tender, but don't let them rest — serve as soon as you pull them out of the oven.
Here’s one tasty source of protein and healthy fats for those with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and dental problems. Besides the Atlantic salmon fillets, this easy recipe by Sara Mellas calls for just a handful of pantry ingredients. On the table in 20 minutes, your masterpiece will pair wonderfully with roasted potatoes and asparagus. This is probably the fastest and the healthiest gourmet dinner I’ve ever cooked.
These filling, flavorful meat- and dairy-free enchiladas are just what the doctor ordered, especially for those with heart disease or high blood pressure. The aroma of the sauteeing veggies and spices will have your loved ones waiting at the table, even those who might sometimes need multiple invitations. This recipe already packs some bite from the jalapeño and the green chiles, but if you’re in the mood for more, serve this wholesome meal with hot sauce.
Salads and side dish recipes for seniors
Menegus believes it’s wonderful when a veggie side is healthy and easy to make. He also feels aiming just for those two goals is setting the bar too low. These next recipes were designed to spark joy ... and induce salivation.
Late fall is the time to pick up some newly harvested Brussels sprouts at your farmers’ market, though they’re, of course, a year-round food. Among other benefits, this fragrant side dish by Sara Mellas provides plenty of fiber and some healthy fats. The recipe’s as uncomplicated as they come — just a bit of cutting, mincing, and tossing. Remember to give your Brussels sprouts 15 minutes of roast time before you sprinkle the garlic. Serve fresh out of the oven.
This simple option by recipe developer David Bonom offers healthy carbs and fats and goes particularly well with salmon. When these potatoes come out of the oven, they’ll be crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. You get to savor the perfume from the rosemary roasted together with them — and from the fresh sprigs you’ll add as garnish. For a fun look, buy baby red and white potatoes (the first locally grown spuds arrive in early summer). I’ve discovered a special way to set the table when I make this dish: placing it as close to my plate as possible.
For such a healthy and versatile option, this Easy Roasted Asparagus is surprisingly quick and easy to make. In just a little over 15 minutes, it’s ready to rock your taste buds, and it requires only three pantry staples. This recipe by Sara Mellas is a smart way to get a fiber boost without the unwanted calories. Of course, asparagus provides the most nutritional value when it’s newly harvested — in mid-spring. While this side can accompany just about any main dish, it’s particularly good with baked salmon or chicken breasts. Serve as soon as it’s done roasting, which is kind of perfect — this succulent asparagus smells too tempting to wait.
Butternut squash season starts in mid-fall — that’s when the vegetable truly shines. Like all the dishes on this curated list, though, this one’s a bright idea for many seniors year round and a convenient, healthful food choice for their weekly Meal Plan. A fresh take on the autumn classic, this recipe uses nutmeg and grapeseed oil, but you can sub in olive oil, too. So, delight your palate and color your dinner table sunnier.
This low-effort, restaurant-quality salad comes together in minutes and makes an exquisite light meal or side dish. The recipe calls for popping the hazelnuts in the oven for several minutes, but you can also pick them up at the grocery store pre-roasted. Similarly, you can buy your beets pre-boiled. That gets you to the table even sooner because then all you have left to do is slice the grapefruit (harvested in late winter). My hard-to-please grandma was so impressed with this dish’s beautiful simplicity she did a little happy dance — to the beet.
As versatile as it is scrumptious and healthful, this salad is a joker you can keep up your chef’s jacket’s sleeve. This quick and easy recipe by cookbook author Jill Silverman Hough involves toasting the pecans, which creates a heavenly aroma. To save even more time, however, you can just buy those ready to go, too. This gourmet side dish also lends itself to adding crumbled cheese and sliced apple or pear. Feel like turning it into an entree? Just toss in some roast chicken or turkey and enjoy.
Here’s another healthy recipe boasting toasted nuts, citrus fruit, goat cheese, and honey. Unlike some other salads in this roundup, though, this dish is best served warm. Roasting the sweet potatoes (freshly harvested in late fall) is the longest part of the process. Use that time to whisk the liquid ingredients together with the spices. This side will brighten up your Thanksgiving dinner table or pair nicely with a simpler entree like baked chicken breasts.
Protein shakes for seniors
Protein shakes are healthy and versatile — I wish I’d discovered them sooner. It takes only 10 minutes to make a batch, and you can enjoy it anytime. Whenever my grandma has one of these drinks on the go, she says, “What’s for dinner? Dessert, shaken and stirred!”
This recipe had me at “Greek yogurt and honey” and has since become a household favorite. It’s my go-to healthy dessert, and sometimes, breakfast or snack. Just bear in mind: This protein shake is delicious and good for you, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's OK to skip meals.
What strikes you when you first lay your eyes on this beverage in a tall glass is the vibrant color it gets from the blueberries. The recipe is filled with other healthy ingredients and is dairy-free. You’ll be surprised how refreshing this shake is — even though it doesn’t come on the rocks.
Here’s an effective and delicious option for those who have a hard time getting enough protein in the morning (or any other time of day). Oh, and did I mention how chocolatey it is? That’s my kind of breakfast. OK, fine, mid-afternoon snack — a guiltless one. Coffee may not be for everyone, though, especially those with heart disease, so please check with a doctor.
Explore healthy eating
Whether you’re a senior care professional or just researching diets and recipes for yourself or a loved one, we’ve got you covered like a sheet pan with parchment paper. These next articles will help you and your family plan tasty, nutritious meals and keep reaching those health goals.