The senior-citizen cookbook.

All things elderly.
Sept. 10 2008 6:54 AM

The Senior-Citizen Cookbook

How your food needs will change as you get older.

Read more from Slate's Geezers issue.

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

If you're approaching retirement age, you might be looking forward to devoting some quality time to artisanal cheese-making or, say, perfecting your grandmother's recipe for piccalilli. After all, it's your generation's enthusiasm for fine dining that made cooking a national spectator sport. (Thank you, by the way.) But you may also be concerned that your gustatory pleasures will diminish as you get older. If you start losing teeth, will you still be able to gnaw on a hunk of rustic wood-oven-baked bread? Will you still be able to tell a New World Syrah from an Old World Côtes du Rhône with a sniff and a gargle? Here's a preview of the ways your food world may change as you get into your late 60s and beyond.

You may eat less. Because your energy requirements generally lessen as you age, your appetite is likely to shrink. In a phone interview, fabulous octogenarian and food historian Betty Fussell (who has a new book, Raising Steaks, coming out this fall) mentioned that her appetite has decreased as she has gotten older, but her desire to eat hasn't. In fact, the small-plates appetizers that have become popular in restaurants in the past decade or so are perfect for her, she says—custom tailored for someone with an adventurous palate but a bite-sized appetite. "Desire remains the same," she says, "but it focuses on intensity rather than quantity."

The problem with a smaller appetite is that the food you do eat must be, in awkward nutri-lingo, nutritionally dense. Your body's need for vitamins and minerals holds steady as its need for calories lessens, so it's best not to get calories from instant ramen. (For more information on senior-specific nutrition, check out a version of the USDA's "My Pyramid" graphic modified for older adults by Tufts University researchers.)

You may eat more. Over the years, you've probably gotten good at snacking. Just because you're getting older and your body needs fewer calories doesn't mean you're going to lose that talent. Not surprisingly, more and more seniors these days are obese, and nutritionists now find themselves issuing a double warning—eat enough to make sure you get your daily nutrients, but don't eat so much that you increase the risk of obesity-related disorders (like heart disease or diabetes).

Your Stilton may be less stinky. Most older people experience a significant deterioration in their sense of smell, which, you may remember from your wine-tasting classes, is a key component of flavor. (Flavor, technically, is a composite picture of what your taste buds taste, what your olfactory nerves smell, and other tactile factors like the chill of menthol or the irritation of a hot chili.) Without a sharp sense of smell, you might become a chronic browser, nibbling at different foods but perpetually unable to get the emotional satisfaction that you once did from any particular meal.

Corn off the cob. Old age doesn't necessarily mean a full set of dentures anymore. The percentage of people over 60 dealing with full-on tooth loss has gone down significantly, even in the past decade, to about a quarter of the population. If you do end up with dentures—particularly an ill-fitting set—toothsome textures that you once loved may prove annoying or even painful to eat. Fortunately, softer food is chic as can be, with chefs Cryovacking, braising, and slow roasting away to create tender and voluptuous food.

You'll start keeping a candy jar. The actual sense of taste—those five qualities (sweet, sour, bitter, acid, and umami) that you can perceive thanks to your mouth's taste buds—also can change with age, but usually less significantly than the sense of smell. You'll probably gravitate toward the taste that you respond to most; for a lot of people, it's sweetness, which might explain the omnipresence of Jell-O on nursing-home menus. (Although that might actually say more about the retrograde state of institutional food than it does about its consumers. For utterly depressing and typical sample menus, click here or here.)

You'll miss salt. More than half the population over 65 has hypertension, so your doctor is likely to tell you to cut back on salt (not to mention saturated fats and refined sugar). Heart-healthy-pamphlet writers insist that you'll eventually get used to, or perhaps even prefer, less salt. But don't be too surprised if you daydream about the flaky fleur de sel you once lavished on everything from salads to chocolate cake.

Slow cooking. In retirement, you'll finally have time to make the gourmet treats you never prepared when you were raising kids and working. But if you have arthritis or weakened vision, it could be harder to do prep work. Consider investing in an easy-to-read measuring cup or an extra-soft grip peeler. (Here's one source of easy-grip supplies.) Other shortcuts might come from the grocery store, not the kitchen. Jacques Pepin, the world-famous 72-year-old cooking instructor who, as a young apprentice, used to pluck his own chickens before roasting them, told me during a phone interview that he uses "the supermarket more as a prep cook. … You take a boneless and skinless breast of chicken at the supermarket in a nonstick pan, and you add some prewashed spinach and some sliced mushrooms, and within five minutes you have a dish, and that's cooking from scratch." His new book and TV series, More Fast Food My Way, is all about such little efficiencies.

Your style may change. If you've always eaten with curiosity and gusto, you will probably continue to do so. But Jacques Pepin told me that getting older has led him to a simpler path. "I look at young chefs, and [they] tend to add and add and add to make it supposedly more professional or more intricate or more esoteric or more complicated. And I suppose as you get older you take and take and take away from the plate. You tend to be left with the essentials."

Despite any adjustments that old age brings to your appetite, some things remain the same. If you have always been cautious about food, no doubt you will prefer a narrow range of meals as you get older; after all, age is a great distiller of personality. But once a foodie, always a foodie—even if you have to trade your salty soy sauce for a squeeze of lemon, your spare ribs for soup dumplings, or your chewy bistecca fiorentina for a more forgiving bollito misto.

Thanks to Dr. Beverly Cowart at the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

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