Time saving mealtime tips for carers
I’m hugely passionate about the health and welfare of older people and continue to provide training to care homes and carers about the importance of nutrition. This passion extends to the heath of carers and whilst I know there’s always so much going on when it comes to caring for older people, you should never overlook the importance of diet and nutrition. This applies to yourself as well as those you care for.
Food has the power to do so much more than just nourish the body
Aside from the physical benefits of eating well, mealtimes are often the only opportunity many older people get to interact with someone and is a way for those with dementia to navigate their day. Food has a unique way of stimulating thoughts of the past and certain dishes/foods have the wonderful ability of conjuring up an association with occasions during the year such as strawberries for Wimbledon, pumpkins for Halloween, mithai for Diwali and sprouts for Christmas. Amidst the current wellness landscape, I hope we never lose these associations between culture and food as they’re so much more important than the latest protein powder or green juice!
Carers in the UK
My hat goes off to carers in the UK and so should yours. Aside from the huge commitment and impact it has on their health and wellbeing the economic contribution is estimated at £132 billion each year according to research carried out by the charity organisation Carers UK.
There’s no carer stereotype, but it can be defined as anyone (child or adult) who looks after a family member, partner or friend because they need help as a result of illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem or an addiction, and is not paid for their work. There are around 7 million carers in the UK equating to one in ten people and this figure is predicted to rise by 3.4 million people over the next 15 years (1).
I’m focusing on those that care for older people and the majority of these carers in the UK are women, many of whom are considered to be part of the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for children and older parents at the same time (2).
I will write another blog on the impact of caring on health and the little attention they pay to their own self-care, which puts them at risk of both physical and mental health issues.
Financing the cost of care
The impact of caring can take its toll on those that still have to work at the same time, which is estimated to be one in eight carers. Many carers have to sacrifice employment to fulfil their caring responsibilities, which can add to stress and financial commitments with surveys showing that 53% of carers have had to borrow money as a result of their caring role with 61% borrowing from friends or relatives and 41% having to use overdrafts. It’s also been shown that 60% of carers have had to use all of their savings, whilst 23% have had to re-mortgage their homes or downsize to smaller properties to cover the costs (3).
The older carer
Another group of carers often not considered by those with little knowledge of this environment are those who are older themselves. Research shows that 65% of carers aged 60-94 years themselves have long-term health problems and that 68% of such carers say that their caring role has had an adverse effect on their health with a third saying they have cancelled treatment or an operation because of their responsibilities (4).
Why is diet so important for older people being cared for?
The food we eat provides the energy and nutrients that the body needs to maintain good health. Good nutrition is particularly important as we get older as it helps to support the immune system (which protects against infection) and offers nutrients that help with many other areas of health.
Nutrient deficiencies are not common in the general population but can occur in this age group and can lead to fatigue and low mood, and many other symptoms that can impact on day-to-day wellness. Malnutrition is common in older people, especially those with dementia and this can not only make life more difficult for those that you care for but also for carers that have the added burden of dealing with the symptoms as a result.
We absorb nutrients less efficiently as we age and medication as well as lifestyle can also impact on this. There are also many other things that carers may have to consider when helping older people to eat well such as dentition or the changes brought about by dementia that affect all of the senses and the desire to eat.
Mealtimes are just one of the responsibilities of carers and aside from cooking food can be a lengthy process if they have to put time into helping someone to eat. For those also supporting a family, it doesn’t take a maths genius to see how much time needs to be committed to mealtimes, especially if the person your caring for needs a lot of support.
Time management is essential and even more so to insure carers are taking time out for themselves, which many fails to do. Mealtimes don’t have to feel like a burden and there are shortcuts that you can take to reduce the time spent in the kitchen without having to sacrifice good nutrition.
Get the basics right first
To insure every meal counts nutritionally you just need to get the basics right. Meals should include a good source of protein (meat, fish, Quorn, tofu, beans, pulses, cheese), source of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, potatoes, rice or other grain) and plenty of vegetables, whilst bursting with flavour to encourage appetite. This doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated as you can create some very simple meals using this principle, whilst making the most of time-saving preparation techniques and quick-fix foods.
I have put together this list of tips but there are probably many more that you already use and I would love to hear from you to share these ideas.
Smoothies are a great way to provide a very quick breakfast or snack if you’re feeling rushed for time. Use any milk as a base and throw in fruits (frozen or fresh), spinach and oats then sweeten with a little honey. You can also prepare single smoothie packs in individual sandwich bags and keep them in the freezer to save a little more time. This is a great option if you’re trying to deal with malnutrition as you can easily whack up the calories by adding other ingredients such as oils, tofu or protein powders.
Cooking in batches once or twice a week is a great time saver. Dishes such as stews, curries, casseroles, hearty soups and other one-pot dishes are perfectly suited to this and can be packaged individually and stored in the freezer. Try adding in plenty of veggies to your dishes (frozen is fine) or pulses (canned) to maximise the nutritional content. You can also add foods such as chicken livers to batch cooked meals to boost their nutritional content. You can buy ready cooked grains in ambient pouches that can be microwaved to save time boiling grains.
Mealtimes can be made up of lots of small food items, which can be taken straight from the fridge to create a lunch or supper platter. Dips, vegetable sticks, chopped fruits, pitta breads, cooked meats, samosas, dim sum, sushi, scotch eggs, hard boiled eggs, cheese and biscuits are just a few examples and if stocked up can offer a meal in minutes.
Healthy ready meals
You don’t have to be a slave to the stove when preparing meals and there are plenty of healthy ready-meals available that can be microwaved in minutes to provide a quick meal option. Foods such as fish pie, cottage pie or beef stew always go down well and can be teamed with a serving or two of frozen veggies such as carrots or peas to help boost the nutritional content of the meal.
Learn a repertoire of simple five-minute-meals
Creating a quick repertoire of nutritious quick meals can be a great standby when you’re struggling with what to cook. Eggs are perfect (omelettes or scrambled) as is wholemeal toast topped with canned fish or baked beans, pasta with canned tuna tomato sauce, soup with wholemeal toast and grilled salmon fillet with ready-made mashed potato. Try teaming each dish with vegetables by either serving them as a side or adding them into the dish.
Soups are a great way to cook up a meal in a flash and when served with wholemeal bread provide a good balanced meal. Try and boost their nutrition potential by adding in canned pulses, lentils or other frozen vegetables before cooking. Soups can be low in calories so try drizzling with a little olive oil after cooking or topping with parmesan shavings.
Make use of canned and jarred foods
There’s nothing wrong with canned and jarred foods as they can be hugely nutritious and essential time-savers. Canned tuna is a great protein booster and jarred sauces can be a life saver and reduce the time required to batch cook. You can add fresh or frozen vegetables to these foods to boost their nutritional content. A simple Bolognese sauce takes little more than mince, tomato sauce and some chopped vegetables to create a nutritionally balanced meal.
Create a list of weekly essentials
Take some time to get a grip on the foods that you use on a weekly basis to create healthy meals. If you have the essentials in stock, then you will never get caught short.
Keep snacks in stock
There will be times when you need snacks, which may be needed to help someone in your care to gain weight or for those moments when someone’s appetite is not strong enough to face a whole meal. Foods such as cold meats, yoghurts and cheese are useful to keep in the fridge as are sweeter foods such as custard and fruits like bananas.
Don’t waste the left-overs
It’s amazing what you can create from leftovers and these can save a lot of time the following day when preparing meals. Sunday roast leftovers can easily be whipped up into a nutritious hash the following day and spaghetti bolognese tastes great when re-fried.
Find ways to make sweet foods more healthy
In some instances the person your caring for may develop a sweet tooth, which is common in those with dementia. If something sweet is the only way to get someone to eat then think of ways to add a little extra nutrition to the food your preparing. Chopped fruit is good on custard and ice-cream, whilst fruit-based puddings made using fresh fruit such as pies and crumbles contain the benefits of the fruit and switching traditional crumble for something oat-based is good.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping an older person in your care to eat well. Providing those in your care with a healthy nutritious diet is important but you also have to do the best you can within the moment in time. Don’t make mealtimes stressful and try to use the tips above to take the strain off this area of your responsibilities. It goes without saying to figure out the foods that the person your caring for likes to eat as this can be a game-changer when their appetite is compromised.
My only final note is that carers don’t forget the importance of self-care and this means taking time out for yourself to eat and live well. It can be difficult to see the woods for the trees with such responsibility but I for one think you are all amazing.