Martha’s Vineyard seniors learn to eat well, spend less

Senior citizens picked up tips on eating well on a tight budget. — Photo by Betsy Corsiglia

The community room at Woodside Village of Island Elderly Housing was filled with aromas of spices and fresh vegetables Friday morning while some 15 neighbors chatted, swapping recipes and cooking tips. Not just a friendly luncheon, the gathering was a program called “Eating Well on a Tight Budget” designed by two Simmons College Nutrition students to help seniors make wise food choices.

Masters candidates Betsy Corsiglia of Oak Bluffs and Jen Stallings of Marshfield developed the workshop as a research project about seniors’ eating habits and effective ways to improve their nutrition.

While the dishes on Friday’s menu — tuna and cannellini bean salad, and delicate sweet potato and zucchini latkes — were delicious, they highlighted ingredients both nutritious and inexpensive.

Friday’s was the second of three lecture/demo lunches beginning on Monday, Feb. 6, at the Tisbury Senior Center. The final program will take place Friday, Feb. 17, 10 am, at the Hillside Village Community Room in Vineyard Haven. Although aimed at people 55 and older, the information and tips are valuable for anyone, especially those who live alone and cook for one.

The researchers developed the model as a thesis project for a class taught by Nancie Herbold, chairman of the nutrition department. They worked closely with their advisor, nutrition professor Theresa Fung, Sc.D., R.D., L.D.N.

Ms. Stallings said the pair focussed on elder nutrition because older people often continue to eat the same foods they did years ago when raising families. But seniors often have changing nutrition needs which go unmet. For example, elders need increased calcium to protect bone health and added fiber to aid digestion and cholesterol control.

Older people can become at risk for conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other imbalances that can be alleviated or avoided by better eating habits.

In addition, older people often live alone and lose interest in cooking just for themselves after years of preparing food for a family or spouse. And sense of taste can lessen with age, making eating less pleasurable.

“All of this puts them at jeopardy,” Ms. Stallings said.And for senior citizens, as for many in today’s tight economy, being able to eat well on a modest budget is crucial.

After introducing their research plans and goals for the workshop, the leaders outlined the recipes, breaking down the cost per serving and explaining the nutritional value of the ingredients. Sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidant vitamins A and C and are a good fiber source. Zucchini is also rich in fiber and vitamins but without the starch and sugar which can impact blood glucose. Ms. Stallings described the antioxidants found in produce as “fly swatters,” because they may help clear the body of toxins. Fiber, she said, “keeps your system like an elastic band, it helps everything move more smoothly.”

Cannellini beans were picked for the salad because, along with beneficial fiber, they have a higher calcium content than other beans.

When it was time to cook, the enthusiastic volunteers got right to work. Despite some stiffness in her hands, Leonora Devenay dove right in, grating zucchini, while recalling the many meals she prepared while raising four hungry sons. Others chopped onions, garlic, and tomatoes, beat eggs, drained beans, and shredded sweet potatoes in a mini food processor.

Vincent Comunale, an experienced cook thanks to his days living on a sailboat, carefully drained and dried the shredded squash that would be mixed with sweet potato and egg. With the latkes frying the amateur chefs began preparing onions, vinaigrette, tuna, and beans for the hearty salad. Some molded and cooked more latkes, a versatile dish that can be baked or microwaved as well as fried.

While food preparations continued, the leaders offered hints on nutrition, thrifty shopping, and overall ways to make cooking easier and eating healthier. Ms. Corsiglia demonstrated the miniature food processor, a boon for easier shredding and grating. She recommended using frozen vegetables, which are often just as good as fresh and much easier to prepare, and demonstrated easy, safe methods for chopping.After sampling the dishes, often coming back for seconds, many said they would give the recipes and preparation tips a try.

“I’m not much of a cook, but I’ll make this!” said Hank Sjostrom with a grin as he sampled the tuna bean salad.

Happy with the enthusiastic response, Ms. Stallings said the hope was to inspire seniors to try a new dish, or ingredient, or cooking method that would lead to better eating, rather than just stick to what they’re used to. “It only takes one moment to change your behavior,” she said.

Healthy meal tips

Include protein, carbohydrates, and fat in every meal.

Avoid added salt. Use spices, herbs, lemon juice, Mrs. Dash and other non-sodium seasonings to accent flavor.

Maximize protein intake and cut costs by adding beans, eggs, nuts, and other non-animal protein to your diet.

When making stews, soups, casseroles, and other cooked dishes prepare a large quantity and freeze in single-serving containers for a quick meal.

Increase calcium intake by mixing low-fat milk, milk powder, or low-fat yogurt into soups, casseroles, cereal.

Don’t feel like cooking and eating alone? Join with a friend or neighbor or two, each preparing part of the meal.

Eating Well on a Tight Budget, Friday, Feb. 17, 10 am, Hillside Village Community Room, Vineyard Haven. For more information call 508-591-5282.