Better nutrition when cooking for one

You can still eat healthy foods without making a big meal each night.

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When you live alone, coping without a companion at meal times is more than just lonely; it's also a risk for malnutrition. "People don't make an effort when eating is no longer a social experience. There's no joy left in preparing food, because they don't view it as something valuable to do for themselves," says Melanie Pearsall, a registered dietitian with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Challenges lead to health risks

Loneliness is just part of the nutrition challenge when you live alone. Some people may also experience

  • depression, which may reduce appetite

  • immobility, which may keep you from being able to cook

  • declining thinking skills, which may cause you to forget to eat

  • transportation or financial problems, which may keep you from buying food

  • dietary restrictions due to chronic illness, which may feel overwhelming when it's time to figure out what to eat

  • medication side effects, which may cause changes in taste.

As a result, some people 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—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 realize that eating will give you 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, and suggests the following.

Aim for three meals a day. Use these general nutrition targets:

  • Fill a quarter of the plate with protein (chicken, fish, legumes, eggs, or cheese).

  • Fill a quarter of the plate with whole grains (wild rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta).

  • Fill half the plate with vegetables (go for variety and color—kale, squash, carrots, broccoli).

  • Add one piece of fruit, yogurt, or both.

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 with fresh food. Take low-sodium soup stock and throw in some frozen vegetables; or buy 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; and freeze for later use.

Beyond the table

It's also important to solve underlying causes of poor nutrition. Get an assessment with a primary care physician, a geriatric social worker, or a dietitian. If you suspect depression, you may need to talk to a therapist.

If transportation is the issue, consider hiring a driver, finding free rides from a senior center or church, or using a reduced-cost bus or taxi program (these are often funded by local governments). If you're not sure where to turn, check out the Eldercare Locator at www.eldercare.gov, a service of the U.S. Administration on Aging.

Finally, make social contact a priority. Consider volunteering for a nonprofit group, or take advantage of programs and lectures at local senior centers. And 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.