Kitchen Tips to Keep You Healthy

Jackie Waldron

Returning home after a stroke and getting back to day-to-day activities can be challenging — especially when it comes to preparing tasty and nutritious meals. Many stroke survivors have special dietary needs that make meal planning even more essential. Meal planning, in turn, helps with creating a shopping list before going to the market. Back in the kitchen, many adaptive tools can help in with food preparation. And, because many survivors also deal with fatigue, preparing and freezing meals in advance is a welcome option. Here are some important “tips of the trade.”

Plan to make a plan

Create a weekly menu. This will allow you to plan accordingly, have a more varied menu, and more easily and effectively monitor your sodium, cholesterol and carbohydrate intake. This is particularly important for individuals with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart issues.

Shop smart

Make a shopping list based on your menu and the ingredients needed for each meal. This not only will ensure that you’ll have the necessary items, but also will help you avoid impulse buying. Try to select fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Look for pre-cut or pre-chopped meats and vegetables that may help you in preparing meals. Be sure to read the food labels and pay close attention to serving sizes and nutritional information so that you can make smart, healthy choices. Note that if you do buy canned vegetables or fruit, look for options that don’t have salty sauces and sugary syrups. Choose items with the lowest amounts of sodium and added sugars. Drain the liquid and rinse the veggies before cooking to remove as much salt as you can.

Home delivery

If you tire easily, have difficulty getting around or find the idea of going to the market overwhelming, you may want to look into having your groceries delivered. Many supermarkets and online retailers such as Amazon and Fresh Direct now offer home delivery if you place your order online. However, if ordering online isn’t your cup of tea, consult your local store manager or customer service representative who may be able to help you with options.

Slicing and dicing

To make meal preparation as easy as possible, it’s important to have the right tools in your kitchen. Knives with a good grip, rocker knives and manual or electric food processors can make a big difference in cutting, chopping or shredding items. Food processors are perfect for pureeing foods if needed due to swallowing challenges. To keep bowls and cutting boards securely in place, place them on a rubber “grip” mat, and if you need any new utensils, look for those with suction or non-skid/ non-slip features. There are also a number of jar openers and other handy devices on the market.

Sensible seasoning

When we prepare food for our patients at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, we don’t add salt. Instead we rely on citrus, herbs, vinegar and even a small splash of cooking wine to help add flavor. For example, we combine lemon and basil with chicken or a mango salsa with fish to jazz up some flavors without added sodium or cholesterol. We generally recommend avoiding condiments as well because they may contain a lot of salt and sugar. For sweetening, we use applesauce, honey, maple syrup, agave or stevia.

The big freeze

Preparing and freezing meals is a terrific idea, one that we often recommend to our patients and their families. It saves time and energy, and answers the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?” The best approach is to plan your menus, make double or triple the quantity of various meals, and freeze them in portions. That way, all you need to do is “heat and eat!”

There are several ways to prepare freezer meals. A one-pot meal using a casserole, skillet or slow cooker is easy and delicious. When done, simply cool and transfer it into a container or freezer bag.

A second option is to cook a single item, such as chicken breasts, and freeze them individually so you can take out as many as you want for a meal, defrost in the refrigerator and heat in the oven or microwave. You can pair it with fresh or frozen vegetables, such as steamed broccoli or peas, and a starch, such as mashed sweet potatoes, for a healthy and colorful dinner plate.

You could also freeze a whole meal. Using the above example, you can put one cooked chicken breast, some broccoli and a portion of mashed sweet potatoes in a sealable bag or container. Then all you need to do is pull out one bag, thaw and heat. If using a microwave, be sure to add a few drops of moisture, either water or stock, to the food before heating to keep it from drying out.

One word of caution: There are many prepared dinners and other products available in the frozen section of your local market. Read the labels carefully before purchasing these items and choose those lowest in sodium, added sugars and saturated fat. Avoid foods containing trans fat.

Feeding your appetite

Survivors often lose their appetite during and even after a hospital stay, so we are always trying to find ways to encourage people to eat. We use as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we can because we know that colorful and visually appealing food can help stimulate the urge to eat.

Smell can also be a strong trigger for rousing an appetite. One suggestion is to boil a pot of water and add cinnamon sticks and cloves. Let it steep for a few minutes. Leave it on your stove and a warm, wonderful scent will permeate your home — and the smell of cinnamon helps stimulate the desire for food.

Time to eat

Try not to skip meals. This will help to keep your energy and body chemistry levels even throughout the day. Many people find that having five or six small meals a day works better for them than three larger meals. Also, keep healthy snacks around — nuts, fruit or yogurt depending on any dietary or swallowing issues. If you are having problems with your appetite, try to make your first meal of the day your biggest. That way, you will have kick-started your metabolism with a more significant calorie boost.

Dealing with dysphagia

For survivors with swallowing issues, the size and texture of food matters. You should consult with your physician or speech therapist to determine how to prepare certain foods. If puree consistency is easier for you to swallow, create a base of foods that come in a pureed state, such as mashed potatoes, applesauce, yogurt and pumpkin. Keep in mind, too, that vegetables and fruits need to be peeled and de-seeded for safe and effective pureeing.

If you can tolerate small cuts of food, making sure they are moist can often help in swallowing as well. You can moisten foods with sauces, gravy, dressings or syrup — but again, be aware of how much sodium and saturated fat these contain.

Keeping it smooth

Smoothies can be a great snack, especially for someone struggling with appetite. When made with yogurt, you get important protein into your diet, along with fruits and vegetables. For example, if you have a hard time getting enough vegetables in your diet, consider adding spinach or kale to your smoothie. And if a nutritional supplement like Boost® or Ensure® is recommended for you by your physician or dietitian, put some into your smoothie. Remember, however, that a smoothie is not a meal replacement. Instead, enjoy it as a refreshing and nutritious drink.

Making Freezer Meals

Denice DeAntonio, Survivor Fleetwood, Pennsylvania

Denice DeAntonio

Before my stroke, meal planning was haphazard at best. Running to the store for a few ingredients was the norm. After my stroke, I could not drive due to visual field cuts. I am now legally blind and cannot simply drive to the store every time I need an ingredient or want to try a new recipe. Sending a family member to the store is not practical. In addition, eating out was expensive. Then my friend, Linda, introduced me to freezer meals. Armed with a grocery list, my husband took me to the store and we bought the ingredients to make 10 freezer meals.

The amazing part is, in one evening a few friends gathered at my home and we assembled 10 meals in a few hours. The freezer meals are stored in gallon size freezer bags and lay flat in your freezer. Therefore, you do not need a large freezer to store meals. When I need a meal, I simply take it out of the freezer and defrost in the refrigerator overnight. The meal is then prepared as directed. Most of the times I simply need to add a side, which I already have on hand. The best part about freezer meals is that they can be adapted to your tastes and dietary needs.

When I have freezer meals, we eat healthier. We save time since most of the meal preparation is completed ahead of time. I have made freezer meals for the slow cooker, the skillet, oven and the grill. The choices are endless. Preparing freezer meals can be a group activity. Several meals are prepared in a few hours. Much of the prep work, cutting, chopping and peeling is done ahead of time so meal prep is easy. By using freezer meals, I continue to do an activity I enjoyed before my stroke. I also feel I am contributing to my family. Freezer meals have been a great option for me and helped me increase my confidence in the kitchen.

Editor’s Note: See the American Heart Association’s recipe site for healthy, slow cooker recipes that can make great freezer meals.

More Kitchen and Food Prep Tips

See these previous Stroke Connection and Heart Insight magazine articles for more helpful ideas:

Kitchen Mobility, Kitchen Stability

Peeling an Orange with One Hand

It CAN Be Done!

Be Spicy, Not Salty

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