Healthy Food Ideas to Boost Appetite for Elderly Loved Ones this Holiday Season

A big part of holidays and celebrations is the festive or traditional dishes and the joy of enjoying these dishes together with families and friends. 

Our beloved elders, however, may not look forward to festive food as much as we do. A wide variety of health conditions may make food less appetizing to them, ranging from dental issues such as tooth loss and gum disease, to difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and digestive disorders. Other conditions such as diabetes, gout, hypertension, and heart conditions may require dietary restrictions such as low sugar, low fat or low salt, prompting our senior loved ones to stick to their own foods or skip the gathering altogether. Some elderlies have poor appetite as a result of chronic conditions like dementia, stroke, etc.

The pressure is huge when preparing dishes that are holiday-appropriate, nutritious and healthy yet appetizing for the elders as well as the rest of the family, allowing everyone to enjoy the same food and feel a sense of togetherness. 

In this article, we share 8 food ideas to help you plan a food menu that can fulfil the appetites of everyone, especially the elderly.  Better yet, these ideas are not just for the holiday. They can also be applied to everyday cooking. With a little bit of creativity and experimentation, you can stimulate the appetite of your elderly family members all year round. Let us dig into it!

1. Adding herbs & spices to food

The benefits of cooking with herbs & spices are well documented in both traditional cookbooks and modern studies. Adding herbs and spices to food is proven to enhance appetite, including restoring satiation for a low-salt diet. By appealing to the sense of smell, the aromas from cooked herbs and spices can also trigger happy eating memories from the past and create anticipation of a good meal, thereby boosting appetite for the elderly. 

A number of herbs and spices, known as carminatives, are known to aid with digestion, prevent gas, relieve bloatedness, helping our elders feel less heavy after a meal. Popular carminatives include fennel, nutmeg, black pepper, anise, basil, coriander, oregano, rosemary, ginger, cinnamon, and mint. Some of these herbs and spices are even called natural appetite stimulants.

Each cuisine has their own herb blends. Select the herb and spice blends that your elderly loved ones like the most and add them to your dishes. As a suggestion, you can try five spice mix with your roast for an Asian flavor, or add rosemary to your roasted chicken and potato for a Western feel.   

Occasions like Christmas will be incomplete without the awakening aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg. Don’t forget to sprinkle cinnamon powder on your drinks or add nutmeg to your baked desserts. Your elderly loved ones probably will want the meal to be served sooner smelling the aromatic food being prepared in the kitchen.   

2. Including stews & soups in the menu

Stewed dishes and soups are perfect for family dinners, holidays, and any occasion. They are warm, hearty, and easy to share. For busy family chefs, stews and soups are an excellent choice because they can be prepared beforehand. 

In stew dishes, ingredients are slowly cooked until the flavours and nutrients are blended into aromatic flavors and delicious broth. The meat often becomes succulent in the stews, perfect for elderlies with difficulty chewing. Soups on the other hand are perfect for seniors with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). The other benefit of stew and soup dishes is that the recipes are often flexible. You can easily fulfil the nutritional requirements for your loved one’s diet with stews and soups without sacrificing the taste. Bread and rice can also be served with soups and stews as an appetizer or main course. 

Options for soups and stews are many. They are so popular during holiday seasons that some dishes are named after the occasion, such as this Christmas Eve Beef Stew. Other stew recipes that are popular during holidays include beef rendang, this easy-to-prepare Chinese style braised beef, or this Indian style vegetable stew. As for soup, try chicken noodle soup, butternut soup and bean soup. They are packed with nutrients and protein, good for immunity and are easy to eat and digest as well.

3. Opting for steamed recipes

Steamed dishes are less popular in Western cuisine and therefore might not be the first thought for holidays with Western origins such as Christmas or Thanksgiving. But they can be a perfect occasion food. Most importantly, steamed dishes are one of the healthiest, yet nutritious and easy for elders to consume. Steaming helps to retain the proteins and nutrients within the food while making it soft, succulent and easy to digest. 

Steaming is popular with chicken, fish, seafood and vegetables. To enhance the flavors of steamed food, try adding aromatic ingredients in the steam water. Aromas will be infused to the food during the steaming process, resulting in irresistible steamed dishes. For example, adding lemongrass and lime leaves will give the seafood a Thai flavor, while adding rosemary and garlic will lend the chicken and potato a Western flavour. When serving, use sauce, coriander, shredded ginger, spring onions or fried garlic to garnish and complement the taste of the steam dishes. 

Popular steamed dishes for occasions include steamed fish, steamed chicken with mushroom, and not to forget the versatile & delicious steamed egg. 

4. Looking for healthy sauce and dressing recipes

Sauces are essentials in recipes, especially with roasted and steamed dishes. It provides an extra oomph of flavour. But sauces can be heavy. For example, the cream garlic sauce that contains the whole pack of whipping cream can offset all of the efforts to be healthy when you opt for steamed chicken. Similarly, cranberry sauce can contain more sugar than recommended, especially for elderlies with diabetes.

To keep sauces delicious yet healthy, try sauce recipes using natural fruits such as this plum sauce. Plums are tangy, sweet, with nutrients that can stimulate appetite, help with digestion, especially our beloved elders and. You can also swap heavy cream with low fat yogurt or add honey instead of sugar in your dressing or sauce. Be sure to add the honey when you are done cooking the sauce, for a beautiful viscous texture and deliciously natural sweetness.

5. Swapping refined grain for whole grains

Whole grains are not only nutritious and easy on digestion but can also help with conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol and even heart diseases. Our seniors may have sensitive stomachs, due to aging or gastrointestinal conditions. Including whole grains in the diet in the form of whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice, etc. is recommended for daily meals.

During festive seasons, we typically consume more meat. Whole grains are important to balance our diet and aid in digestion. Adding whole grains to holiday meals can be as simple as serving whole grain bread instead of white bread with the stew dish. Take note that whole grains can be hard to swallow for those with dysphagia. In the case of swallowing difficulty, make sure food is cut in small pieces and well-dipped in soup or broth to make it easy on the throat.

6. Serving healthier drinks

A holiday or dinner party is incomplete without a toast. Sugary drinks and alcohol are almost a must-have on the table. For seniors with hypertension or heart diseases, alcohol can trigger irregular heartbeat, messing with sleep quality. Those with diabetes who cannot resist the occasional sweet drink may experience an immediate impact on their blood sugar level. 

This Christmas, give this fruit punch which can easily go with or without alcohol a try. If you prepare drinks for a diabetic family member, consider hot beverages like eggnog and hot chocolate, or refreshing flavorful cold drinks such as herbal iced tea, coconut water, or infused water. In this way, loved ones with diabetes can enjoy the full deliciousness of the festivity without suffering from any harmful effects later.

7. Timing desserts and snacks right

Desserts round up a meal nicely. However for elderlies with poor appetite, a full course meal can be too much work. By the time the main course is finished, they can be tired and full without wanting desserts. In case they continue with desserts, they may become too full and lose appetite when it is time for the next meal. 

Therefore, it is a good idea to serve desserts as snacks a few hours after the meal, when our seniors have digested the main course and have the appetite to eat again. We suggest dessert options that are light and can be served as snacks, such as this cheese roll-ups and yoghurt with crackers. They are not just light and appetizing for the elders but perfect for everyone! If the elderly loved one craves something sweet, try bean curd or healthy pudding recipes instead of traditional pudding, or serve sorbet instead of ice cream.   

8. Stimulate appetite with appealing food & table presentation

We eat with our eyes first. A beautifully laid out table and well-presented dish can stimulate the taste buds, boost appetite, feel more delicious to eat, and add to a more memorable celebration time. For special occasions, it is totally worthwhile to make the effort. 

To set up an appetising party table, you can use paper napkins with festive prints, add colourful garnishing to food such as corianders, carrot, chilies, etc., or place food of contrast colours next to each other. This final touch will make our beloved elders and the whole family eager to start the meal as soon as they catch sight of the food.    

9. BONUS: Ideas to Make Holidays Enjoyable for Homebound Seniors

We often feel festive when the holiday street lights are up, the shops start decorating for their holiday sales or a band pops up at the street corner playing a holiday tune. Homebound seniors, however, lack these daily cues to get excited about the holiday. They may even feel left out. Apart from the food ideas discussed about, here are 6 ways you can help your seniors enjoy the holiday without leaving their home.

  • Plan for the holiday with your senior loved ones: Discuss with them in advance about holiday traditions they want to uphold, friends or family members they want to invite over or send holiday gifts to, how much time they want to spend resting vs. celebrating, etc. The planning will get them excited about the upcoming holiday even if they do not get to see festive decorations outside.
  • Decorate their rooms with festive items: Bring the festive mood to their room if that is where they spend the most time. Observe them moving around to ensure that walkways are cleared of wires and other hanging items to prevent against falls and tripping hazards.
  • Play holiday music: Sometimes hearing our favourite festive track is sufficient to put us in the mood. Ask your seniors what holiday songs they want to listen to and play it for them. It can stimulate memories and enhances bonding too.
  • Ask for their help: Your elderly loved ones may need to rest but will not want to be left out. Involving them in suitable holiday tasks make them feel inclusive and helpful. Find suitable tasks that they can do with the rest of the family, such as peeling vegetables while you are cooking, folding napkins while you are setting the table, or arranging flowers.
  • Plan ahead their medical needs: Scheduling medical appointments early helps you avoid the holiday rush. If you are travelling during the holiday, plan for medications and respite care and let your seniors know about the plan. Don't forget to have an emergency medical contact handy in case you need it during the holiday period. It is best not to have to use it, but a peace of mind if you or your respite caregiver knows what to do in case of urgency.
  • Put together a holiday photo album: Celebrations nowadays are incomplete without the 'compulsory' photo-taking part. Make sure you help you elders dress up for the occasion and share the photos with them afterwards. Saving the photos and videos in an album on their phone or put them up a digital photo frame helps your loved ones easily access the happy memories later. You can also print out their favourite photos as a traditional photo album if your seniors prefer it that way.

10. Takeaway message

Food connects us. Occasions unite us. Preparing food for an elderly with a poor appetite or difficulty eating can be challenging, more so during the holiday. With the suggestions above, we hope you are inspired to be creative when cooking for your loved ones this holiday season. These 'hacks' can be used all year round as well. During the holiday period, be sure to carve out time to help homebound seniors experience the holiday vibe. They enjoy the food you cook more when they feel joyful.


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