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The dinner table during the second half of your life should look and taste a lot like that of the first half: a well-balanced plate with lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy grains and low-fat dairy products.

For seniors, who may have limited energy and resources, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of eating processed foods and frozen dinners loaded with salt and additives.

"The message doesn't change," said Jane Doroff, director of senior nutrition at the Council on Aging. "Stay away from as much processed food as you can and utilize your farmers market, buying produce from them rather than just opening a can."

According to the Tufts University's Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults, seniors need fewer calories, but they still require a high level of nutrients from whole grains, protein and brightly colored veggies and fruit, along with adequate water. But because appetite and thirst diminishes with age, seniors often forget to eat and drink on a regular basis throughout the day. That can lead to weight loss and infections, and exacerbate chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

"The biggest problem we see is dehydration," said Genevieve Ladha, who provides meals for seniors in their homes as the owner of Sonoma Homecare. "Because their thirst diminishes, they're not interested ... But you have to drink your water. It's a chore, but a really important one."

To help boost water intake, Ladha suggests purchasing a Brita water filter, available at Safeway and other stores. The pitcher holds six glasses of water and is easy for seniors to lift.

"You can make water taste better by being filtered," she said. "You have to help them remember or give them a benefit."

Ladha, who is a certified senior advisor, or CSA, provides nutrition advice for seniors through a series of "Food After 50" workshops held at various senior living complexes throughout Sonoma County.

"We have such a bright, active senior community in Sonoma County," she said. "The goal is to make food that they like ... A lot of the seniors have a very sophisticated palate."

As part of the workshop, Ladha provides recipes that are easy to fix, inexpensive and can be eaten any time during the day. The dishes are also well-seasoned, so that they appeal to folks with low appetites.

"I make a lentil-quinoa salad, which can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner," she said. "It's got lots of calcium, and it's easy to digest for seniors."

Her clients also enjoy the boosted flavor and smooth texture of hummus and carrots, caramelized roasted vegetables and whole-grain breads from Alvarado Street Bakery, which can be toasted for breakfast. Instead of white rice, Ladham suggests that seniors choose corn tortillas and whole-grain tortillas as the starch component of their meal.

While it's easy to slice carrots, colorful vegetables such as squash and pumpkin can be unwieldy for seniors to chop. Instead, Ladma recommends buying frozen squash from the grocery store, then mixing it with black beans and sauteed spinach for a nutritious meal.

If you use canned beans, however, she suggests rinsing the beans several times to remove the excess salt.

For clients who have high cholesterol, she likes to cook with two fresh eggs — but only one yolk — for a simple frittata breakfast or lunch. Another high-protein breakfast is yogurt mixed with a small amount of fruit.

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"A quarter cup of yogurt, with berries, is manageable," she said. "We use the Fage Greek yogurt, and it has a ton of protein."

As part of her "Food After 50" workshop, Ladha takes seniors to local farmers markets to help steer them toward vibrantly colored foods such as sweet potatoes and blueberries, along with other fresh produce.

"They go to the farmers market and pick up radishes and greens," she said. "And they like the crunch of Romaine lettuce."

Ladha finds that her senior clients are particularly fond of her Caesar salad because she makes it with a fresh, lemon-anchovy dressing.

One of the tips for stimulating a senior's appetite is to have them suck on a lemon drop or bite into a lemon before eating, to wake up their taste buds.

"It's a refresher, and it cleanses the palate," Doroff said. "Their taste acuity does diminish, because their taste buds slough off."

At the Council on Aging, a nonprofit organization serving 900 meals to Sonoma County seniors each day, almost everything is made from scratch, which enables the kitchen to keep the sodium and fat content in check.

Sharon Spratling, senior-meal program dietician for the Council on Aging, plans all the menus according to American Heart Association guidelines for low-fat and low-salt meals. She must include sources of vitamin C, calcium, fiber and protein in each meal.

"It's like a puzzle," Spratling said of her menu planning. "I have to fit it together with what is appealing, nutritionally sound and can be made in a large volume."

A recent Council on Aging meal, served in senior centers and delivered through the Meals on Wheels program, included chicken with garlic sauce, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, a whole-wheat roll, a fresh peach and a carton of milk.

Getting enough protein can be especially challenging for seniors who are on a tight budget or have difficulty chewing their food, but experts view it as a key component of a healthy diet.

"Research shows that boosting your protein intake can help retain your lean muscle mass, even when you're sedentary," Spratling said. "Lean meat, dairy, eggs and beans are all wonderful."

While tofu is still a hard sell among older seniors, it can provide an excellent source of protein for younger seniors more open to new foods, Spratling said.

The Council on Aging sends out nutrition tips with their daily menus and in their monthly newspaper that encompass everything from farmers market updates to ideas for easy entrees for one. The council also recommends that seniors try to integrate some physical activity as part of their daily regime. That viewpoint, however, is not always met with enthusiasm.

"We were on a roll about growing container gardens right off your patio as a good physical activity," Doroff said. "Then we got a comment from an 88-year-old, who said, &‘That's enough with the health. I'm 88 years old and I'm going to do what I want.'"

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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