Nervous about your aging parents’ eating habits? How not to get frozen out

Dozens of chickens. Questionable milk. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s serious. Here’s how to tell.

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Over the holidays, comedian Alyssa Limperis — known for impersonations of her Massachusetts-based mom — started a Twitter thread about strange things discovered in her childhood fridge. People replied in viral (and I do mean viral) droves: nose-twirling mustard from the Reagan administration; ancient boxes of disintegrating Jell-O.

Boxborough’s Becky Harris visits her childhood home in Belmont and marvels at the freezer, a bottomless pit of frozen butter, turkeys, and “ancient” blocks of cheese.

“My mom’s a coupon-cutter. She goes through the papers every week and goes to stores depending on the sales. They’ve lived in Belmont for 45 years and are doing fine financially, but my mother grew up with a single mom in a time that was challenging. They won’t go to restaurants. They go to Uno’s if they have coupons,” she says.


On the plus side, says Harris, her mother did teach her the art of preservation.

“I became a conservation biologist because of her,” Harris says.

Medford’s Tara Hennessy wonders from afar how her parents, who live four hours away, manage to spend $200 on groceries every week without buying vegetables. Their kitchen overflows with products that concern her, especially because they’ve each had heart surgery.

“My mother and father grew up with virtually nothing, and now they have the means to go to the grocery store and pick out what they want,” Hennessy says. “They have the means to buy food, and they do — because they never know when they’re going to be starving. But my mom will try to make lasagna from scratch, and I’m like, ‘Great. But none of this is what you’re supposed to have. It’s not healthier. It’s two pounds of ground beef with heavy ricotta.’ It’s stressful.”

Another woman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want to upset her father, marvels that he hasn’t yet died of food poisoning.


“My [siblings] and I text each other: ‘You won’t believe what we found in his fridge,’ ” she says. “He grew up in the 1930s and doesn’t like to throw food away,” including moldy meat and spoiled milk that he claims smells fine.

She brings her own food when she visits. She wonders if he should move to an assisted-living facility but also worries that leaving his longtime home will make him sick.

“When old people are forced to move and can’t die in their own home, it can speed up their demise. It would be stressful to leave a place he’s been living in for 60 years,” she says.

Newton’s Annabella Gualdoni relocated her parents from a large home in California to Brookline, in part after noticing a kitchen full of uncovered food.

“Now that I see them more often, it’s continuing. No matter what I say, I can’t stop it. I bought them Pyrex and Tupperware with lids, but to no avail,” she says. Accustomed to California’s water shortage, they’re also reluctant to use a dishwasher, so they simply rinse off crumbs. She organized Meals on Wheels deliveries, but they balked.

Today, she orders food delivered by Amazon Fresh, making sure that her diabetic dad doesn’t get the cocoa powder that her parents request.

“But my mom goes to the senior center, makes friends, and gets rides to Trader Joe’s and Wegmans. I can’t control that. Or she goes to the Russian market and gets pastries,” Gualdoni says. “But they’ve lived this long. What can you do?”


And, really, what should you do? Not all aging parents possess poor eating habits, and sometimes quirks are just that — quirks. And, hey, Generation X is weird, too. Many adult kids I spoke with noted that their own parents find their kids’ eating habits just as bizarre (the restaurants! the takeout! the obsession with organic food!).

Plus, sometimes older adults come into their own with age, especially if the death of a spouse leads them to explore the kitchen for the first time.

Worcester’s Rich Barbieri, 75, cooks nightly for his daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. His wife passed away several years ago. He often uses her recipes (especially her macaroni and cheese), which he proudly posts on social media. His adult children also bought him Hello Fresh meal kits, which makes prep easier.

“My wife was an excellent cook, and I was the clean-up man,” Barbieri says. “But it’s amazing what you can do with a vegetable, baking it in the oven. The kids even eat them for snacks: a little olive oil, and they come out nice and crispy. I also try to make Shepherd’s pie. It’s a learning experience, and it’s kind of fun.”

He’ll help his 8-year-old grandson use measuring cups and add ingredients. Recently, they made meat loaf together.

“But I do cheat once in a while. I buy Bob Evans mashed potatoes,” he admits.


There’s also a fine line between quirky and dangerous. Mom’s museum of salad dressings or dad’s penchant for hoarding bread might be funny, but they could be signs of something worse. How do you know when your parents aren’t eating properly — and what can an adult child do about it?

First, know the facts. Dietary needs evolve with age, says Ena Sandler, a clinical outpatient dietitian at Emerson Hospital in Concord.

“Our needs and habits can change; metabolically, our caloric needs might diminish a little,” she says, especially as adults lose muscle mass and reduce activity, thus requiring fewer calories.

There are some baseline nutritional requirements, though. Forty to 50 grams of protein per day is key — eggs, poultry, meat, and fish — and should be eaten with all meals. Generally, older people shouldn’t drop below an intake of 1,200 calories each day. They should also eat two servings of fruit per day and two cups of vegetables. Fluid intake is important, too.

“This is why I love soups and nourishing beverages,” says Sandler, such as Carnation’s Instant Breakfast or low-salt V8, which combine hydration with nourishment. Other low-maintenance, high-impact foods: yogurts, crackers and peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, canned fish, unsweetened fruit cups, and individual packets of cottage cheese.

Adult children should look for common warning signs of malnutrition, says Sandler: barren or disorganized cabinets; an odiferous fridge with aging or out-of-date food, which often accompanies a diminished sense of smell.

Nutritional needs are almost universal; grappling with how to impart this wisdom to a parent is highly individualized. Your first reaction might to be to toss Mom’s beef stew from 1994 or to berate dad for harboring 10 moldy chickens in his freezer. And while some parents might gratefully accept advice — food deliveries or help cleaning out the fridge — others might perceive this as an assault on their dignity and independence.


“It’s a reversal of roles but so important to sustain your integrity with them and to not make judgments or give comments. You have to be strategic and clever,” Sandler says.

A few tools: send a parent home with leftovers when they eat with you. Offer to take them grocery shopping. Involve grandkids. The parent who might resent a fridge clean-out might enjoy cooking a favorite recipe with a grandchild.

They might also need to hear advice from someone outside the family, says Tara Fleming Caruso, a collaborative-care adviser at Boston’s Hebrew SeniorLife.

“The first line of defense could be getting a medical evaluation done. This generation highly reveres physicians,” she says. An objective doctor’s advice — whether that’s bringing in outside help, considering alternative living arrangements, or receiving a consult with a nutritionist or geriatric care manager — might be more well-received than needling from an adult child.

“You step into a place of a potential role-reversal, where the child becomes the parent and the parent almost becomes the child. This is a danger zone and could eclipse the possibility for a healthy conversation,” Fleming Caruso warns. “Don’t wait until you notice 30 ketchups in the fridge. Create an opportunity for ongoing, proactive conversation.”

Of course, few adult children want to bring up loaded topics about aging, whether it’s regarding finances or spoiled cream cheese. Acknowledge that it’s hard.

“It’s good to speak right from the heart and to say: ‘It’s kind of scary for me to bring up the fact that I want to talk with you about future needs. It isn’t easy to be vulnerable in that way, but I care about you and want to know what matters most to you as you age. In order for me to be the best advocate for you down the line, we need to begin talking now about how you want to live this part of your life,” Fleming Caruso says. “The lashing out will happen less if it’s a regular conversation and if trust has developed. The parent sees you not as a pushy child but as a partner.”

And, sometimes, even questionable food leaves sweet memories.

Dan Myers owns Loyal Nine restaurant in Cambridge, where he specializes in classic, fresh New England food (emphasis on fresh). This was not always the case.

“Folks tell you how they’re doing well in the industry because they grew up with a dad who was a cook. That is not my experience. I come from a family that’s half-Irish and half-Canadian. We weren’t known for culinary talents,” he says, laughing.

After his grandmother, Mildred, passed away, he continued to visit his grandfather, Stewart.

“She was very well-known for making pork buns that were basically a big dough ball, with ground pork cooked down with aromatics, celery, and onion. She’d only make them once a year and deep-freeze them,” he recalls.

He was charmed when his grandfather offered him pork buns on arrival. How nice to continue his grandmother’s beloved culinary tradition, he thought.

But then he paused.

“There was a deep nostalgia — until he told me, ‘Your grandmother made these,’” Myers says. “It was three years after she died.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.