Nutrition shortcuts when you live alone

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

I learned early on in my career that loneliness affects the dinner table. I was a young TV news anchor at the time, and one day, an elderly woman walked up to me in a store and said, “I live alone, but I eat dinner with you every night.” It was the first of many times that I would hear those words. It was always humbling, and it instilled an extra sense of responsibility in me at 6 o’clock every evening.

Now that I have elderly loved ones who live alone, I see that they’re coping with an empty table and little interest to cook or even eat. It’s a common problem. “They’re missing companionship,” says Melanie Pearsall, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “When eating is no longer a social experience, people don’t make an effort. There’s no joy left in preparing food, because people don’t view it as something valuable to do for themselves.”

Challenges lead to health risks

Loneliness is just part of the nutrition challenge for older people who live alone. They may also experience

  • depression, which can reduce appetite
  • immobility, which can keep people from being able to cook
  • declining thinking skills, which can cause people to forget to eat
  • transportation or financial problems, which can keep people from buying food
  • dietary restrictions due to chronic illness, which can feel overwhelming when it’s time to figure out what to eat
  • medication side effects, which can cause changes in taste.

As a result, older adults may wind up skipping meals or relying on convenience foods, such as cereal, frozen dinners, or canned foods. “I see people doing mono-meals, and eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They aren’t bothering with fruits or vegetables. They eat poorly, and their diet lacks variety,” says Pearsall.

That lack can lead to malnutrition — a deficiency in vitamins, fiber, protein, or calcium — and malnutrition can lead to poor digestion, weight loss, bone problems, and fatigue.

Shortcuts to better nutrition

Initially, it may help to remind older adults that eating will give them a little more pep. “I find that energy is a big hook,” says Pearsall. “People might not be motivated about good health, but they always want energy to see the grandkids or go to the store or do a hobby.”

She also points out that healthy meals don’t have to be complicated. These are some of her favorite tips for crafting simple and nutritious meals:

Aim for three meals a day,  and try to hit general nutrition targets.

  • Fill ¼ of the plate with protein (chicken, fish, legumes, eggs, or cheese).
  • Fill ¼ of the plate with whole grains (wild rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta).
  • Fill ½ the plate with vegetables (go for variety and color — kale, squash, carrots, broccoli).
  • Add one piece of fruit and/or yogurt.

Change the definition of a meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to come close to your nutrition goals. Ideas include a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on whole-wheat bread, with a piece of fruit; an egg atop whole-grain toast, with yogurt and fruit; or a whole-grain waffle with a little peanut butter, along with fruit and a small glass of milk.

Blend convenience foods with fresh foods. Take low-sodium soup stock and throw in some frozen vegetables; or buy a rotisserie chicken and then use it several ways — in soup, sandwiches, or a salad.

Batch-cook once or twice a month. Make a big “batch” of lasagna, soup, stew, or casserole; divide it into numerous servings; freeze them for later use.

Beyond the table

Make socialization a priority, particularly for older folks who may be less able to get out and about. “You must talk to someone at least daily, and get out of your house at least once a week,” says Barbara Moscowitz, a geriatric social worker at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Consider volunteering for a non-profit group, or take advantage of programs and lectures at local senior centers.

Everyone should make an effort to share meals with family and friends once in a while. A mealtime conversation will enrich your life much more than dinner in front of the TV news — even when the news anchor is glad she can be there for you.



    With regard to the energy requirements and taking into account that the digestions tend to be slower is not very well documented that the energy requirements (decrease of basal metabolism) decrease with age, especially now that the activity is higher in the elderly. Diets with a lower caloric intake to 1800 kcal for women and 2300 kcal for men, are likely to be inadequate in protein and micronutrients, and must therefore be avoided. For the calculation of the energy requirements should be taken into account that it is necessary to maintain a balanced energy balance on the basis of the physical activity and the basal energy expenditure (which has not been clearly demonstrated that diminish with age). In addition the experience has shown that on this group of the population has most harmful effects the reduced intake (high prevalence of malnutrition), that a moderate excess weight. Which leads to think that it must be “generous” in recommendation energy, without reach nor the risk of obesity. It thinks DR? Many thanks


      What is intended to develop a diet for higher in a diet for the elderly should be ensure a good availability of nutrients, some culinary preparations pleasant and a physical framework welcoming and without voltages (Aranceta, 1988). 1. The allowances shall be simple and easy to prepare. 2. The food will have a bright and pleasant. Presentation 3. Fractionate the diet in 4 or 5 meals a day. 4. The last meal will be frugal or light. 5. The liquids and juices will constitute a single shot or be supplied between meals. It is preferable to the consumption of moderate amounts of mineral water without gas with meals, although it allows the intake of a small amount of red wine (a cup), if it is part of the customs of the elderly and there is no medical contraindications. 6. It should be moderate consumption of coffee and exciting drinks. 7. It should not be abused of liqueurs and drinks watered down. 8. The time of ingestion should above all be an act of coexistence and social relationship. It is important that food are a vehicle of health and that the tasting is carried out within a framework of harmony. 9. Keep as far as possible the habits and personal tastes.


    Very good article doctor, when adults no longer can fend for themselves should take a decision. Some people are betting on caring for their parents in their home, but there are also cases of people who bring their parents to a residence. In the same way, highlights the excellent work of day centers, that perform a great feature, allowing the elderly can sleep at home, while during the day is accompanied and assisted by professionals. Also very important the voluntary persons who help. But in the event that the elderly can fend for itself, it is also important that the family has gestures of interest in him: for example, the children and grandchildren have to visit the largest regularly. Weekly plans should be proposed, such as eating all together on Sunday and at least once a day, it is recommended that the children call by phone to their parents to know how they are, what they have done throughout the day and be able to chat a while. You can also surprise you at any time with a gift to feel special, or buy magazines and newspapers so that you can read and be informed of current issues, crossword puzzles, scrambled letters…


    Thank you for your interesting articles with important information that would have to reach the final patient and be more affordable


    Thank you very much for your interesting articles.

  5. Jim

    So do we need a paradigm shift?? Meals on wheels, or Wheels To Meals??. I have a trademark on that, FWIW.