Sandwiches and Potato Chips: Feeding our Elderly

After a bad fall, my 92-year old mother, Lois Bartlett, is convalescing at a hospital in her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite her many ills, she is sharp mentally and interested in getting better. It’s her appetite that’s gone.

A slim and tall woman (she seemed like a tree when I was little), she has always eaten just about everything enthusiastically and until now, has done her own cooking and shopping.

“The food is awful here!” she wailed. I had to agree that the overdone purees and tough slabs of meat were nearly inedible.

“Just give it a good try.” I advised. She had a better idea.

A few days later, she explained, “Christina is bringing me food.” Christina Minielly has known my mother for over 30 years and most recently, has been a caregiver and lunch provider.

“What is she bringing you?” I asked, thinking about some nutritious soup or perhaps some vegetables or fish.

“Sandwiches and potato chips!” she chirped. “And usually, there’s enough for my dinner too!”

Your ten-year old probably shouldn’t have a steady diet of sandwiches and potato chips but at 92? I think it’s great. She’s back to eating and in fact, that sandwich probably has everything she needs, as least for now.

About 20 years ago, my father was dying of lung cancer. I was appalled by his diet of canned soups and frozen food and wanted to make sure that he was eating ‘correctly’. Who knows? Maybe I thought I could cure him. I tried to tempt him by cooking various dishes with delicate sauces and special vegetables. Sometimes, he’d say, “Don’t bother too much with lunch. Isn’t there some Campbell’s soup on the shelf?”

Ha! I’d think. Nothing like that for my dad! No sirree. Everything from scratch.

On another occasion, he was more forthright. “I’d really like some Stouffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini”. Suddenly, I was caught short. Why wasn’t I feeding him what he wanted? His life was really down to weeks at that point. Shopping and cooking was eating into some nice time we could spend together, sitting and reading or reminiscing.

So, I learned a lesson. Throughout your life, eating well is important for many reasons and health is only one of them. But at the end of life, all the constraints of keeping yourself alive are not so important. If my mother wants potato chips, she should have them. When she’s stronger, maybe she’ll go for that nutritious soup I’d like to make her but I can wait.

If you have an elderly relative or friend who you’d like to cook for, it is a wonderful act of kindness. My mother’s young artist friend Rhonda Davis often brings her tasty treats. “You know this stuff, hummous, is really good!”, my mother commented one day, fishing around for more pita bread. Bear in mind, that your older friend won’t eat much and heavy pots or bowls will be hard for a frail person to handle easily. A pint of soup, a small container of stew, or a slice of pie will be just right.

If you’re cooking for a sick friend, bear in mind that lots of food that smells and tastes so good when you’re well has the opposite effect when you’re sick. Spicy or rich foods, dairy (especially cheese and cream), strong tasting fish or meat are the culprits here. Also, the texture of certain foods, such as steak, can be hard to handle. Salads and salad dressing can taste much more acidic when you’re not feeling up to par.

So what’s left? Soup is a good bet with clear broth and some good vegetables, a bit of rice, and a little chicken. Some folks like rice pudding or applesauce. Using a mild cheese, a warm grilled cheese sandwich can be tempting.

My husband’s mother, Mary Allman, also had a poor appetite in her last weeks. One day, I made her a simple egg custard. It was plain and digestible and she ate some of it. It sparked some memories of her childhood which she recounted with quiet pleasure. I enjoyed the stories and was glad that the custard coaxed them out and had given her a little energy.

This dark time of year certainly brings out wonderful generosity and kindness. I am grateful to Christina and my mother’s neighbors who have taken time to bring a very old lady things that she likes to eat.

xoxo, Mary

Here are a few recipes for our older friends.

Egg Custard                                                                                                                                                                                           Also called cup custard or baked custard, this makes a simple dessert for any age and is especially good topped with fruit.

2 cups milk                                                                                                                                                                               3 tablespoons  sugar                                                                                                                                                        pinch salt                                                                                                                                                                                  4 yolks (or 2 whole eggs)                                                                                                                                                   1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the milk, sugar and eggs. Beat well. Add flavoring.

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Pour the custard into 5 or 6 individual ramekins or small Pyrex cups and set them in a baking pan. Pour about an inch of hot water into the baking pan and bake about 45 minutes.

Test for doneness by sticking a knife in the custard. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Don’t overbake as it will get tough.

Green Soup                                                                                                                                                                                          For when you’re feeling a bit low. Homemade broth makes a big difference here, especially if well-skimmed of fat and not too salty. You may leave out the egg but it adds some protein.

2 cups broth (chicken, beef. or vegetable)

1 cup spinach or chard, chopped or shredded finely

1 egg, slightly beaten

Heat the broth to the boiling point and stir in the greens. Cook over low heat a few minutes until the greens are wilted and tender. Stir in the egg.

Serve with plain toast or crackers.

Makes 2 small servings.

Baked Chicken

Breast of chicken can be pleasant enough for a sick person but it can easily be tough or too bland. A little lemon juice helps to keep the chicken tender.

1 boneless chicken breast

½  lemon

1 teaspoon dried dill or tarragon


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the chicken in a very small baking dish and squeeze some lemon juice over it. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with dill or tarragon. You can also use fresh parsley, if you prefer. Dot with a little butter and cover the dish tightly with foil.

Bake for 20 minutes and check for doneness. Cook a few more minutes if necessary.

Makes one serving.

Milk Toast

I read M.F.K. Fisher’s glowing words about milk toast a few years ago and at the time, thought they were a bit ridiculous. But then I came across this pencilled notation in an old cookbook of my mother’s next to the recipe for milk toast:

“Mama likes this.”

No doubt she was referring to her own very elderly mom.  Milk toast is a lovely soother for anyone who is ailing but especially nice for babies, young children and the elderly.

1 cup milk

2 slices bread


Heat the milk until it is simmering but not boiling. Toast the bread and butter it (sparingly or generously depending on the condition of the sick one). Pour the hot milk in a large bowl, break up the toast into pieces and serve at once with a spoon.

There are versions where cinnamon and raisins and a little sugar are added.

11 comments on “Sandwiches and Potato Chips: Feeding our Elderly

  1. Melissa says:

    Dear Mary: What a nice article! I remember when my mother in law was in her last months and I brought her over to my house for the afternoon. I asked her what I could make her to eat..thinking a soft boiled egg would be nice..She said, no, she wanted some nice crisp bacon!

  2. Miriam says:

    That was a very good article. I want to add some of my own experience to this one(bossy as always).
    I learned from a geriatrician that eating is such a big problem with the elderly that the best thing is to give them exactly what they want, even if it is the same thing day after day. My friend Rusti was concerned that her parents weren’t getting enough variety, but their doctor said that hamburgers every day was fine.
    Also, they lose their sense of taste often, and can only taste sweet and salty. That’s Hilda’s problem. Here’s what she wants: soup and more soup. She says my soup is the best she’s ever eaten, and her mother was the queen of soup. I make her my chicken soup, which begins with lots of diced onions, about twice as many as you would normally use. For one chicken in the pot (although I also supplement with backs and wings) I use six to seven cloves of garlic, chopped but not too fine. Then, a half a full stalk of celery, chopped. I also start with an organic chicken from Whole Foods, or a kosher chicken. When the chicken is almost cooked, I add frozen mixed vegetables. When the soup has a lot of flavor, usually two hours later, I remove the chicken and take the meat off the bones. At the end, I add thin egg noodles and the boned chicken, although not all of it, to the broth. The rest I can make into chicken salad sandwiches. I know you’re a champion chicken soup maker, but I wanted to share my method of creating a really rich and what I imagine to be nutritious stock, although the cooking probably destroys the vitamins and minerals. The vegetables help me to believe that she’s getting a meal in a bowl. What she’s really getting is something she likes, and will eat.

  3. Maria says:

    I agree with your thinking. The simplest of pleasures at this time are the best and most comforting. I remember mom put a little nutmeg on the top of the custad before she put it in the oven to bake..I think I’m going to make custard soon.

  4. ElderGadget says:

    Hi Mary,
    This is a wonderful post. We think you’re very right about caregivers wanting so much to do the best for their loved ones that they may overlook what those loved ones actually want!
    We wanted to add that slow cookers can be a great way to prepare homemade versions of those beloved condensed Campbell soups. They’re also easy to set and forget, allowing caregivers to regain valuable time with the elderly and infirmed. Plus, they can be a great tool for seniors who still maintain their independence and their love of cooking.
    Being a blog about the ways technology can enhance the autonomy and quality of lives of today’s seniors, we at don’t sell or advertise for slow cookers, we simply provide information on the models that are easiest for seniors to use.
    Feel free to check out our list of the top five slow cookers for the elderly ( We’d love to get your take on our choices.
    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

  5. thomasvickers says:

    What a nice posting. Thank you. I remember mom giving us milk toast when, as kids, we were ill.

  6. Heather says:

    Thank you! I’ve been having problems getting my grandfather to eat and this was just the inspiration I needed!

  7. Suzanne Burke says:

    Whenever my mother was ill, all her life the only thing she wanted to eat was milk toast, except in our house it was called Dead Man’s Stew…

  8. Tanya Finchum says:

    Totally different topic. I understand your mother continues to be sharp. I am interested in possibly conducting/recording an oral history interview with her about her life in Oklahoma, etc. Look forward to corresponding with you regarding this.

  9. Pat Reed says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful article! It makes a lot of sense and it’s always good to see the other side of things.
    My mother is 97 and we’re concerned about her getting the ‘right’ foods and nutrition.
    Her favorite foods are pork and beans, hot dogs and chocolate bars!
    You’ve help me to see her side!
    Again, thank you!

  10. Gina mac says:

    Hi Mary,
    I Googled your Mom, and read she was in hospital 2008. I’m sorry to read of her fall. Lois use to come to my small salon, I would cut and blow dry her hair. Very interesting lady, she has done much for others. I think of Lois often. Wouldn’t surprise me if she returned home and is doing fine. Best to all.
    Gina Mac

  11. Sanida says:

    Hi Mary,

    Hope you are doing well. As Gina mentioned, Ms. Lois has done so much for others. I have not been to Tulsa in the last 10 years or so and have missed seeing Ms. Lois. Would love to hear how is she doing?


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