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Simplifying cooking
By Elise Zwicky

Cooking dinner might be the last thing a busy baby boomer or retired senior wants to do, but the need for healthy food and proper nutrition only increases as we age, according to a University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.

“It's absolutely a common problem as we get older,” said extension educator Jenna Smith, who's also a licensed dietitian nutritionist. “If you have children that are now grown and out of the house, it might just be you or you and a spouse. At the same time, as we get older the appetite tends to decrease, so who wants to get in the kitchen and work so hard to prepare a big meal if it's just going to be you or one other person to eat it?”

That kind of scenario often leads to people heating up a convenience meal or going out to eat, and those aren't usually the healthiest type of meals, Smith said.

“The biggest pitfall, I think, is this idea of not planning for a meal. A lot of times when you have the family and you're involved in doing a lot of things, you plan for those meals. But as you get older, you think: I'm going to just go with whatever food we have in the house and just put something together. And that just doesn't always work,” she added.

Smith advises baby boomers to make a plan of what to eat, preferably a week in advance. However, meal planning doesn't have to be so structured that you plan what you'll have each day. “Have five meals figured out and then you can be flexible and figure out that day or maybe the day before what you're going to eat that next day,” she said. “And write those meals down as you make up the grocery list so you don't forget why you're buying certain ingredients.”

Remembering to include all the food groups is also important at any age, Smith added.

“Stock your cabinets with canned vegetables and canned fruit, or stock your freezer with frozen vegetables,” she said. “We don't always have to have fresh. Canned and
frozen can be good options to get those fruits and vegetables in that a lot of times I think we're lacking.”

Transforming leftovers into a whole new dish is another way to make life easier. “Start with cooking a whole chicken, for example, in the slow cooker. Add some potatoes, onions and carrots and season with herbs and spices for a comforting meal. Then shred the leftover chicken and divide and save for additional meals the rest of the week,” Smith said. “Add taco seasoning and water for chicken tacos one night; and soy sauce, brown sugar and leftover veggies for a simple stir-fry another night.”

She also recommended dividing an uncooked casserole or meatloaf into muffin tins or ramekins for individual portions that can be put in the freezer for easy meals to be thawed and baked at a later date.

“Of course, another option for those eating solo is to invite guests over to help you eat the meal. It's nice to enjoy the company of others while decreasing food waste and
food boredom,” Smith said.

Cathy and Denny Lane of Morton are among a growing group of baby boomers who sometimes utilize mail order meal kits from companies, such as Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.

“We started Blue Apron when we were helping relatives with health problems and found ourselves eating out far too often,” Cathy said.

“We found every meal delicious, less expensive and much healthier. Most provided leftovers. Also, with all of the chaos and exhaustion we were dealing with, it gave us a glimmer of success once a day.”

Lane said the meals are generally easy to cook, and the couple has even learned a few new cooking techniques. “You do need a lot of bowls and a tolerance for messing up your stovetop, which actually drives me nuts,” she said. “It's still worth it, though. We only take the service about once per month now, with life back to normal.”

Smith said the meal prep services can be convenient sometimes but warned they can be costly.

“It's probably not something you're going to do forever. But if you've got the funds, those can be good options. I would just be a little cautious in checking the nutrition information before you go into it, especially if you have any diet restrictions such as low sodium,” she said.

For more nutrition information and meal ideas, visit Smith's blog at