What a coincidence: as Baby Boomers age, bland diets for seniors are on the decline.
The conventional wisdom used to be that soft, pasty foods and bland diets were considered the best choice for seniors. Naturally, as the activists of the ‘60s begin arriving in nursing homes, that attitude is being quickly changed. No one liked those unappetizing choices, and they weren’t the healthiest option, either.
One rationale for those diets—and a major reason behind the changes—is the state of dental health in the elderly. Diets for the elderly used to emphasize soft foods that didn’t require much chewing, if at all. Thanks to fluoride toothpastes and fluoridated water, the emphasis on flossing and gum health, and widely prevalent vitamin enrichment, the number of seniors with all their teeth—or much more effective replacements such as implants and newer, better-performing dentures, crowns, and bridges—is much higher than it used to be. These days it’s much more likely that an elderly care consumer will be able to eat a regular meal with a variety of textures. While a raw carrot may still be out of the question, it needn’t be cooked to a flavorless pulp.
Another major factor is the increasing influence of ethnic cuisines on the American diet. The “meat and potatoes” generation is rapidly being replaced by the “pizza, hummus, and tacos” crowd, who grew up with a much wider variety of food choices and grew up watching such exotic choices as yogurt, granola, and organic produce go from the “health nut” fringes to the mainstream. Having grown up with chili powder, soy sauce, and sriracha, these discriminating diners won’t put up with bland, flavorless food anymore.
Of course, diet and nutrition science has a lot to say on the matter, as well. Advances in our understanding of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have had a profound influence on the American diet. In modern nutrition plans, butter—once a mainstay, then the “bad guy”—is back, hydrogenated lard and margarine are being replaced by healthy oils, vegetables are the stars of the meal, and salt and sugar are handled with great care. We’ve even added a whole new taste category to the vocabulary, “umami,” which is the savory, meaty sensation of glutamate, a protein building block found in meats and aged cheeses.
It’s now clear that adventurous seasoning and a wider variety of choices appeals to the appetite, which in turn enhances nutrition, improves alertness, mood, and quality of life, and directly affects health and longevity.
Aging taste buds need accommodation. As we get older, our taste buds regenerate less often and lose their sensitivity. Dry mouth and nasal tissues, as well as many medications and disease treatments, can reduce the ability to taste and smell. Because the sense of smell is a key factor in the ability to distinguish flavors, when these senses are impaired, seniors may eat too little—or too much—or crave unhealthy foods. This can often be offset with vibrant seasoning and a pleasing variety of flavors. Use herbs and spices, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and flavor foods with sweet-and-sour flavors like citrus or balsamic vinegar in place of that old standby, salt. Cooking with wine can add a lot of flavor, and for many seniors, a little wine with dinner can be a healthy choice and stimulate their appetite.
A good diet plan takes into account the needs of each individual. For those who still require soft foods, slow cooking methods like crock pots and braising meats (cooking them gently on lower heat in liquid) creates soups, stews, and one-pot dishes that are full of flavor and texture while still being easy to eat.
If chewing is not an issue, plenty of delicious recipes are centered around lighter, healthier alternatives to the old mainstays, beef and pork. No more bland, dry boneless, skinless chicken breast! Try seared salmon filets and recipes featuring more flavorful cuts such as chicken drumstick and thigh meat. There are now many recipes for vegetarian main dishes that feature mushrooms, wild rice, eggplant, and squashes, and other great choices. Ask about favorite foods from childhood, and look for recipes featuring healthy alternatives to classic ingredients, such as replacing oil with applesauce and substituting pureed potato for heavy cream. These healthy variations can be found all over the internet and in many modern cookbooks. Share your favorites with friends on social media, and they’ll return the flavor.
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