Older Adults

Nutrition and physical activity continue to be important as we grow older. A healthy combination of good food and exercise can delay or even reverse many of the problems associated with ageing, helping older New Zealanders to continue living independently and enjoy a good quality of life.

To help you feel at your best:

  • Have at least three meals every day. Include plenty of different vegetables and fruits. Eat from all four food groups. To learn about the recommended number of serves for each food group, read the Ministry of Health’s Eating for Healthy Older People resource.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If your weight is a little low, have a snack between meals.
  • Have at least 6-8 glasses of fluids each day, such as water, tea, coffee, and low fat, calcium-enriched milk, unless recommended otherwise by your doctor.
  • Try to be active every day.

Important nutrients for older adults

Nutrients that older people need more of

There are some nutrients that older people actually need more of compared to people in younger age groups. It can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need if food intake is small, so having at least three meals plus snacks in between and keeping an eye on any weight changes is important. Older people need more:

  • Protein: It provides energy and is also essential for the repair and maintenance of body tissues. Eating food from the legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry, and/or red meat with the fat removed group provide us with protein (along with a host of other nutrients). Older men should aim for at least 3 servings/day and older women at least 2 servings a day. Milk and milk products also provide us with protein. Aim to spread your protein intake evenly across the day i.e. having a good amount at breakfast, lunch and dinner and at snacks.
  • Calcium: Older people need more calcium as the body breaks down bone at a faster rate in older age. Getting enough calcium is particularly important for post-menopausal and older women as they are at the highest risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Milk and milk products (e.g., yoghurt and cheese) are the best sources of calcium, aim for at least 4 serves each day. Yellow-top milk which is fortified with calcium, and vitamin D is a good option. Many other foods also contain calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk, tinned fish (with bones), certain nuts including almonds, brazil and hazelnuts, legumes, tofu and wholegrain bread and cereals. Enjoy a milky Milo or coffee, some yoghurt, cheese, milk-based puddings, sauces and soups regularly to improve your calcium intake.
  • Vitamin D: It has an important role in bone health as it helps our bodies to absorb calcium from food. However, it is very difficult to get enough Vitamin D from your diet alone. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight. Try to get out in the sunlight for at least 30 minutes a day, before 11 am and after 3 pm. Foods rich in vitamin D include oily fish, eggs, lean meat and vitamin-d fortified dairy products (yellow-top milk). If getting enough sun is difficult for you, discuss taking a Vitamin D supplement with your doctor

For further information check out Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand

Other nutrients of importance:

While the recommended daily intake for the following nutrients is not greater for older people, it’s very important to make sure you are getting enough of them:

  • Folate is thought to help reduce the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and even some cancers. Not having enough folate may eventually lead to a type of anaemia called macrocytic anaemia, which can make you feel weak, tired, irritable and possibly give you palpitations. Include plenty of whole-grain bread and cereals, dark-coloured vegetables, fruit and legumes in your diet. When you go shopping, look for orange juices and cereals that are fortified with folate (have folate added in).
  • Vitamin B12 is needed for normal blood and brain function. Deficiency can produce a variety of symptoms, including pale skin, low energy, tiredness, shortness of breath and palpitations. As we get older, our ability to absorb B12 from food decreases- so it’s definitely one to watch out for. Medications such as metformin can also put us at risk of B12 deficiency (ADA, 2016). The majority of our vitamin B12 comes from animal foods, such as meat, eggs and dairy foods or vitamin B12 fortified foods. If you avoid animal foods, it is generally recommended that you take a B12 supplement- speak to your doctor about this.

If you think you might be going short of any of these nutrients, or want to avoid eating any specific foods, ask your doctor, registered nutritionist or dietitian for advice.


Cooking for one or two

Cooking nutritious meals for one or two people does not need to take a lot of time or effort and there are many ways to minimise waste.

  • Plan your meals for a week in advance and make a shopping list.
  • Go to the butchery counter, so you can buy meat in smaller portions, rather than the pre-packaged sizes in the chiller.
  • Cooking extra to freeze and reheat at a later stage can save you time and effort. Many meals, such as stews, casseroles, soups, curries and lasagne, freeze well. Place them in single portions in either small containers or freezer bags, making sure to label and date the food. These meals can be reheated in the microwave, oven or on the stove.
  • Dried, canned and frozen foods have a longer storage life, minimising waste. Baked beans, tinned sardines, spaghetti or creamed corn on toast can make a quick, easy and nutritious meal.
  • Store bread in the freezer and take out only as much as you need each day.
  • Ready meals are convenient and minimise waste. They are available in the fridge and freezer sections at the supermarket and delicatessens. Many companies in New Zealand also offer meal delivery services.
  • Keep a bag of frozen vegetables in your freezer. They are convenient and allow you to use only as much as you need.
  • Visit our JUST COOK recipe book for meal and snack ideas.
  • The Individual Meal Plan for Older Adults – is designed to meet your nutritional needs, in a tasty, convenient and affordable way. It includes dinner ideas and recipes, shopping lists for each week, food swaps, lunch and snack ideas and advice on food safety and wellbeing.
  • Shopping for One is produced in partnership with Heinz-Wattie’s. This resource is a handy shopping guide to help you eat well for one week.

Ideas for gaining and improving appetite

It is important to maintain a good weight as you age. However, eating alone, ill-fitting dentures or poor teeth, illness, difficulty shopping, being on a tight budget and some medications are factors that can leave you without much of an appetite. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian if you are concerned you aren’t eating or drinking enough, or if you are losing weight.

  • Small meals and snacks can be more tempting than being faced with a huge plate of food. Try scrambled eggs, creamed corn or baked beans on toast, creamy soups, and a bowl of fruit topped with yoghurt or ice cream. If you don’t feel like cooking yourself, try some of the ready meals that are available in the fridge and freezer sections at the supermarket and delicatessens. Many companies in New Zealand also offer meal delivery services.
  • Include high-energy snacks in your diet. Try having a snack from the milk and milk products food group or legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry and/or red meat. 
  • Try adding extra milk powder to milk and milky drinks, such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, porridge and creamy soups. This will give you extra protein and calcium without adding bulk.
  • Enjoy a pudding or dessert every day.
  • Use standard homogenised milk (with the dark blue cap).
  • Try having your main meal in the middle of the day as you’ll have more energy to prepare and eat your meals. Save the dessert to have with your lighter evening meal.

The eating environment

The environment in which we eat affects our appetite. If you are preparing meals for someone who is not eating well, consider the following:

  • Add a table cloth or flowers to a table, and make sure suitable cutlery is available for the meal being served.
  • We eat with our eyes, so consider adding a garnish to make a meal as appealing as possible.  For example, a piece of parsley or slice of tomato can transform the visual appeal of a pale-coloured meal, such as fish pie or macaroni cheese.
  • Seasoning food is important to stimulate the appetite. Use a little iodised salt in cooking and avoid using salt at the table, and you can use herbs whenever possible to add extra flavour and interest. Make pepper, sauces and chutneys available on the dining table.
  • Eating with others helps to make a meal more enjoyable, so try to eat with those living alone from time to time and encourage them to join lunch clubs.

Preventing constipation

Normally people have between 1 and 3 soft, easy motions each day to 1 every other day (Ministry of Health. 2018). Having difficulty passing bowel movements is constipation.

Constipation can be caused by certain medications, not being very active, not drinking enough or not eating enough high fibre foods.

  • Eat plenty of high-fibre foods like fruits and vegetables (preferably with skins on). Kiwifruit and prunes, legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans), wholegrain or wholemeal breads and cereals are good sources of fibre.
  • Have at least 6-8 glasses of fluids a day, including water, tea, coffee and milk to help the fibre work effectively.
  • Keeping active every day will help.

If constipation persists, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Keeping active

Your level of activity will depend on your fitness levels and mobility. Talk to your doctor if you are just starting to exercise if you have frail bones or any other issues that may affect your ability to exercise. Exercise is also important in helping maintain your balance as you get older, and reduce the risk of falls.

An easy way to get moving is by adding more activity into everyday life. Walk wherever you can, rather than driving. Gradually increase your activity as fitness improves. Aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate activity most days.

Find something you enjoy, to keep you motivated. Here are some ideas:

  • Group fitness classes – for example, yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates. Many YMCA’s hold classes for older people.
  • Dancing is a fun way to burn lots of energy. Try rock ‘n’ roll, salsa, jazz, ballroom or even belly dancing!
  • Outdoor activities such as golf, walking and orienteering.
  • Swimming, aqua-jogging and aqua-aerobics are great low-impact options.
  • Chair aerobics is available at some recreation centres – a great option for people who have limited mobility.

Read the Ministry of Health fact sheet for more ideas on how to keep active. Also check out your local recreation or leisure centre, church or community group for other ideas and activities in your area.


Last reviewed: 21/06/2022


Last modified: July 17, 2022