When you are feeling stressed it changes how you eat. The increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol constantly coursing through your bloodstream can leave you feeling drained. You may reach for your favorite comfort foods that are highly processed or high in sugar.
These foods quickly deliver a “mood boost” but two hours later you will feel even more drained. Without realizing it, you could be making yourself feel worse by repeatedly reaching for comfort foods. By eating nutritious food, you can not only improve your mood, but it can also help you prevent caregiver stress and burnout.
How Nutrition Impacts Mood
Nutrition is necessary to provide your body and brain with the energy you need to survive an ongoing crisis. Making healthy food choices for a caregiver is one of the keys to fueling your body.
Healthy nutrition reduces the level of stress on your body by:
- Supporting your immune system
- Letting you sleep better
- Providing energy for regular physical activity
- Helping your body recover from injuries
- Improving your mood
Important nutrients to consider are:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin D
You may want to eat healthier, but feel overwhelmed at the thought of preparing healthy meals. Meal planning is one way to take the stress out of cooking and set you up for success.
Reducing Stress with Meal Prep
When you know in advance what you are going to eat, it reduces your stress. Planning provides your mind with a sense of security. You eat 3-5 times a day and having to decide each time what to eat can drain your mental energy.
Meal planning allows you to:
- Choose healthy foods when you are not hungry
- Reduce trips to the grocery store
- Add in your favorite foods
- Feel more relaxed about your next meal
- Be intentional about proper nutrition
Cooking to Relieve Stress
For some people cooking is a stress reliever. Cooking can help you feel in control of a situation. Studies have shown that having a goal that you can accomplish each day improves your mood. You can feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment after producing a delicious meal.
Cooking also provides a practical way to add mindfulness to your day. Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is around you and observing your surroundings and actions with your senses.Using mindfulness as a caregiver is an excellent tool for stress relief.
While cooking you can:
- Feel the smooth skin of a tomato while you wash it under the cool water
- Smell the vibrant tang of a crushed clove of garlic
- Hear the crisp crunch of a leaf of lettuce being shredded
To use cooking as a form of stress relief, remember to be in the moment and enjoy all the ways your senses are engaged.
Cooking as a Cause of Stress
For others cooking is a cause of stress. You never get a break from having to prepare meals! You may:
- Not enjoy cooking
- Not have time in your day to cook
- Not know how to cook
- Be sick or feeling drained
- Need a break from cooking
Cooking meals should not be another stress added to your plate.Part of your meal planning can be adding intentional breaks from cooking. One of the ideal ways to do this is to have prepared food delivered.The beauty of this is that it still gives you control and choice over what you eat. You can:
- Opt to have 2-3 days of meals delivered at a time
- Choose a fully prepared meal delivery
- Order a food box that provides fresh ingredients and recipes for you to follow
You are more likely to eat healthy food if you have the healthy food ready in front of you. This is also important to remember for your aging loved one living by themselves.
Consider how you can deliver a prepared meal for a loved one. You can also ask if you can set up a meal delivery plan for them.
Top Nutrients for Seniors
During times of stress our bodies will empty out our resources. You or your aging loved one may be in desperate need of nutrition. Here are some top nutrient sources to focus on for seniors.
Fruits and Vegetables
Foods like colorful fruits, berries, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and onions provide your body and brain with the nutrients needed to function.
- Berries to yogurt or smoothies
- Extra veggies to a canned or homemade soup
- Salads with every meal
Your body is better able to absorb nutrients when they are eaten with healthy fat.
- Fish to your meal plan
- Nuts, seeds or avocado to your salads, oatmeal or granola
Fermented foods are a necessary part of helping your body fight off getting sick. Look at adding foods like:
Try our fruit and yogurt parfait recipe!
As you age it is harder to absorb protein which can impact your strength and energy levels. You can increase protein by:
- Preparing eggs for a quick meal
- Replacing carbs such as potatoes or noodles with Romano or White Navy Beans
- Eating nut butters with apple slices or celery for a quick snack
You have the opportunity each time you eat to help your body to handle stress better. Focus on what you can do. Something as simple as meal planning can make your days feel less out of control as you adjust to each new challenge.
Between finding recipes, shopping, cooking and cleaning, preparing food as a caregiver is time-consuming. You may have made plans to start meal prepping, but it is hard to know where to begin. Meal prep for a senior is also complicated. Your loved one might be a picky eater, have dietary restrictions, need extra nutrients, or all of the above!
This guide will walk you through the meal prep process, so you can find a system that works for you and your family. Meal prepping will save you time and will help ensure that your loved one is eating a balanced diet.
Healthy Meal Prep Ideas when Caring for a Senior
Answer the following questions before you develop meal prep ideas for your loved one:
- Does your loved one have a condition that restricts their diet?
- Does your loved one need supplements to meet nutrition requirements?
- Have you gotten advice from a doctor about your loved one’s nutritional needs?
- Does your loved one have favorite recipes?
- Do you enjoy cooking, or do you want to cut down your time in the kitchen?
Nutritional needs change for seniors and many older adults have dietary restrictions. You should talk to your loved one's doctor about their special dietary needs. This will ensure that you understand what they can and cannot eat.
Their provider may be able to give you a list of good and bad foods as well as recipe ideas. Just a few of the things you may need to keep an eye on includes:
- People eating a diabetes-friendly diet must limit their sugar intake. This includes sugars in refined flour and fruit, not only desserts.
- End-stage renal disease. People with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) may be on a renal diet, which helps preserve kidney function. They may also be on a dialysis diet, which is compatible with dialysis treatments.
- Nutritional supplements. A high-protein diet is an important part of keeping your loved one strong and healthy. You may need to focus on certain nutrients in your loved one’s diet.
- Lack of appetite. Doctors might recommend supplemental shakes in this case. Doctors may also recommend focusing on a certain food group. Additionally, if your loved one has trouble swallowing, a pureed diet might be best for them.
Once you understand the rules, you’ll have an easier time making a meal plan.
Choosing Meal Prep Recipes
Next, think about what your loved one enjoys to eat. Do they have favorite recipes from their childhood? Do they prefer a certain type of cuisine? It is hard to please a picky eater, but you’ll have an easier time if you incorporate things you know they enjoy.
For example, my mom is on a strict diet due to diabetes and dialysis. She loves spicy foods, so I know that she’ll be happy if I incorporate jalapeños and spices into her meals. Even though she has a restricted diet, she still gets to enjoy her favorite flavors.
After answering these questions, make a list of go-to recipes and meal ideas. Don’t worry about making a schedule yet. For now, start with three lists, one each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can start with your loved one’s tried and true favorites or recipes suggested by their doctor.
A Meal Planning Template for Family Caregivers
This meal planning template is for a week of meals. Many people like to plan for a week at a time. That way, you can go to the grocery store once over the weekend, prep some parts of the meals in advance and start your week off on the right foot.
It’s broken down by meal for each day of the week and has a section to make a grocery list and note the ingredients you already have. This makes it easier to do your grocery shopping quickly instead of feeling overwhelmed with decisions in the moment. It can also help you save money by avoiding buying items you already have at home or by buying items in less expensive, higher quantities to use for multiple meals
The simplest way to meal prep is to plan meals, go shopping over the weekend and cook throughout the week. If you are very busy during the week, you may want to do some cooking prep over the weekend. Here are some ways to prepare food ahead of time:
- Chop vegetables that you will use throughout the week. Store them in air-tight containers in the fridge.
- Prepare make-ahead meals like lasagna to store in the freezer.
- Make mason jar salads that you can serve for lunch throughout the week.
- Prepare a quiche or breakfast casserole. You can heat up a serving each morning.
People usually have more time to cook dinner than they have to cook breakfast or lunch. If this is true for you, I recommend preparing something simple for breakfast and lunch. You can repeat the same thing throughout the week and switch things up the next week. Examples include:
- Fruit with granola and yogurt
- Eggs - scrambled, hard-boiled, or poached
For dinner, I recommend eating something different each day when possible. As you write out your schedule, be mindful of your other commitments. If you have a busy day, you may want to put something in the slow cooker in the morning that you can easily dish up and serve. If your day is lighter, you might want to make extra and put some in the freezer or keep it for another night that week.
After you’ve planned your meals for the week, remember to be flexible. You can always move the menu around depending on your mood and energy levels. You’re also free to move a recipe to the following week or take it off the menu completely.
Quick Meal Prep Recipes for Seniors and Caregivers
If you’re still not sure about what to meal prep, we’ve gathered a few ideas of easy recipe ideas to get you started.
A Healthy Breakfast Recipe
Try oatmeal for breakfast during your first week. You can make a few of these at a time for yourself and your loved one so you both start your morning strong. Mix it up by adding different toppings every few days.
Blueberry and Honey Overnight Oats
- ½ cup oats
- ½ cup low-fat milk
- ¼ cup Greek yogurt, plain or vanilla
- ¼ cup blueberries
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Add Quaker Oats to your container of choice.
- Pour in the milk, add the blueberries and Greek yogurt.
- Sweeten by topping with honey.
- Place in the refrigerator.
- Heat it up in the morning and enjoy!
Healthy Lunch Recipes
Wondering how to meal prep lunch? Here are two lunch ideas that use brain-healthy foods like whole grains and fresh vegetables that can be made in 20 minutes or less.
- Quinoa Salad
- 1 ⅓ cups quinoa
- 2 ⅔ cups water
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 limes, juiced
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Bring quinoa and water to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until quinoa is tender and water has been absorbed, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Whisk olive oil, lime juice, cumin, salt, and red pepper flakes together in a bowl.
- Combine quinoa, tomatoes, black beans, and green onions together in a bowl.
- Pour dressing over quinoa mixture and toss to coat.
- Stir in cilantro and season with salt and black pepper.
- Spinach and Strawberry Salad
- 2 bunches spinach, rinsed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
- 4 cups strawberries
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
- Add spinach and whole strawberries to four salad sized containers.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, sugar, paprika, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds. Pour into four small dressing containers, add to the containers, and place in the fridge. Each day you can take one of these out of the fridge, cut up the strawberries, add the dressing and enjoy
Healthy Dinner Recipes
These two dinner recipes are great for your brain and can be made in under 30 minutes! They make it easy to eat healthy in the evenings.
- Mediterranean Shrimp and Pasta
Try a fresh recipe for heart health from the Mediterranean diet.
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Cooking spray
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 cups chopped plum tomatoes
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
- 1/3 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups hot cooked angel hair pasta (about 8 ounces uncooked pasta)
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
- Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat.
- Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds.
- Add shrimp; sauté 1 minute.
- Add tomato and basil; reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes or until tomato is tender.
- Stir in kalamata olives, capers and black pepper.
- Combine shrimp mixture and pasta in a large bowl; toss well.
- Top with cheese.
- Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
Sweet potatoes and black beans are at the base of the recipe. Studies have found that sweet potato helps support memory improvement. Studies on black beans have found that they can have a positive impact on a person’s Alzheimer’s symptoms.
- 1 tablespoon plus
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 4 teaspoons ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground chipotle chile
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2½ cups water
- 2 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 4 teaspoons lime juice
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
- Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 4 minutes.
- Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, chipotle and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds.
- Add water and bring to a simmer.
- Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- Increase heat to high and add beans, tomatoes and lime juice.
- Reduce heat and simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.
Keeping a routinely healthy diet can be tough, however, if you’re looking for more quick ideas to use in your meal planning, check out these healthy recipes.