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Meals for Older Adults: Meal Kits vs. Prepared Meals Explained

Nutrition requirements change as we age. These vary for each adult. Fewer calories might be needed due to decreased activity levels. Increased consumption of protein or Vitamin D might be recommended.

Appetites may decrease, leading to reduced nutritional intake. Challenges in preparing meals and cooking for one person can lead to looking for simpler, easier options resulting in fewer healthy choices. A potential solution to these dilemmas for easy meal prep for older adults is home-delivered meals. The two main options for home-delivered meals are meal kits and prepared meals.

What are meal kits?

Meal kits are in the ready-to-cook (RTC) category of home-delivered meals. Fresh meal kits allow for home-cooked meals without excessive preparation. These kits are typically delivered to your home with all necessary ingredients prepared and pre-portioned. Easy-to-follow cooking instructions are included. Available for families of four or more, meal kits for one person are also an option.

Specific quantities of fresh ingredients needed for the recipes are provided. Eliminating the need to purchase larger amounts from the grocery store may help prevent food waste. The ingredients are prepared and ready to use, so chopping and slicing, which can be difficult for some older adults, is already done.

Meal kits do require some cooking skills and ability as a microwave may not be sufficient for preparation. Time to follow the recipe instructions will be needed as these kits are not intended to be instant meals. Also, factor in time for cleaning up after cooking the meal.

Are meal kits healthy?

Eating various foods has health benefits, and meal kits enable this. The ability to easily try new recipes may provide additional variety without needing to search through cookbooks or the internet for options. Planning meals when ordering meal kits will limit the ability to vary the menu plan later. Meal kits have a limited shelf life due to the fresh ingredients.

An additional health benefit of meal kits is portion control. Although there is no singular portion size that is correct for all, preparing a specific quantity for a meal reduces the chances of overeating. Limited portion sizes also increase the potential for variety in meals since leftovers are likely to be limited as well.

What are prepared meals?

Prepared meals are in the ready-to-eat (RTE) category of home-delivered meals. Simply heat and eat these meals, often using only a microwave. Convenience is the key aspect of prepared meals for most older adults. They are a possible solution for those who find grocery shopping overwhelming, exhausting, or logistically problematic due to transportation issues.

Made with fresh ingredients, prepared meals lack the freshly cooked element that meal kits possess. They do not need to be consumed as quickly as meal kits. Prepared meals may be stored for as long as two weeks before use.

As healthy meal options for homebound older adults, prepared meals provide options for those with specific dietary restrictions, requirements, and preferences. Categories for meals tailored for specific diets include diabetic, low-sodium, heart-healthy, allergen-free, high protein, renal, vegetarian, and pureed. Taking the guesswork out of meal planning for dietary needs allows older adults the ability to more effectively manage chronic conditions with nutrition.

Frozen meals from the grocery store are similar in concept to prepared meals but are often high in sodium. The majority of older adults in the U.S. exceed the recommended daily limit of sodium. Prepared meals delivered to your home provide the same convenience with reduced sodium content resulting in a healthier option.

Some Medicare Advantage plans include prepared meals. These meal benefits are typically for a limited time following a hospital or skilled nursing discharge. Original Medicare does not cover prepared meals. Check your coverage for details regarding eligibility and coverage.

Factors to consider when choosing meal kits and prepared meals

The number of home delivery meal services continues to increase, both for meal kits and prepared meals. With this rise in options comes the need for a way to narrow the choices to those that best fit your situation. Consider the following factors to help streamline the decision-making process.

Cooking ability

Meal kits require cooking skills, and thought should be given to selecting meals that fit within your cooking ability. Kits can range from simple-to-cook meals to more gourmet fare. Heat-and-eat prepared meals will be more time-efficient and do not require any particular level of cooking ability. Microwave meals foster independence for older adults with disabilities.

Dietary needs

Meal kits may offer options for dietary preferences such as vegetarian or low-calorie meals, but prepared meals might have more options for certain dietary restrictions. Prepared meals have the ability to cater to specific medically recommended diets such as renal diets or heart-healthy, low-sodium diets. Both meal kits and prepared meals offer a healthier alternative to fast food and frozen meals. They eliminate the necessity of reading nutrition labels to ensure metabolic needs are met.

Variety and preference

Meal variety is another difference between meal kits and prepared meals. Prepared meals offer a curated menu of meals, which works well for people who enjoy their favorite dishes. For those who prefer trying new meals and exploring new recipes, meal kits offer more variety and routinely add new recipes.

Many older adults experience a loss of appetite for various reasons. Routine and unappealing meals may exacerbate this issue. Selecting a meal kit or prepared meal service with a variety of options might help alleviate this issue.

Cost

Home delivery meal services are designed for convenience, not cost savings. The cost of meal kits and prepared meals will most likely be higher than what you would pay at a grocery store. Factored into this cost is the preparation and quality of the ingredients, and the cost of convenience for the time and expense involved with grocery shopping. As the number of home-delivery meal services has increased, meal prices have become more competitive with grocery stores.

Pricing structures vary between meal kits and prepared meals. Some meal delivery services charge per meal, while others charge a weekly rate. Minimum orders are required in some instances, while other services only offer a limited number of meals per weekly shipment. Meal kits are more likely to provide meals for two or more people, while prepared meals are more likely to offer individual meals.

Subscription models can help reduce the cost. Before selecting this option, verify whether contracts can be terminated or suspended at any time without penalty. If you will not need or want the meals for a certain period of time due to travel or illness, there should be an option to suspend the meal service.

Specific meal choices can affect the cost of meals. Restaurant-style pricing has different prices for each meal, allowing the customer to have some control over the total amount spent. Delivery fees are often an additional factor in the cost, but some services include shipping in their prices.

The biggest impact on reducing the out-of-pocket cost is whether you are eligible for coverage for the meals through your health insurance provider. Meal delivery options provided through Medicaid vary by state. Prepared meals are the only option available through insurance providers. Meal kits that require cooking are not included as an insurance benefit.

Cost comparison: meal kits vs. prepared meals

Prepared meals tend to cost more than meal kits per serving. This is due to the fact that the assembly and cooking of the ingredients has also been done for extra convenience.

Meals from either option for specific diets (such as diabetic, gluten-free, etc.) are more expensive than general-category meals. For home-delivered meals, you can expect to spend $7–9 per serving, with some meals as high as $20 per serving.

How to choose a meal delivery service for older adults

Older adults aiming to eat healthier are looking for easier meal options. Following the trend of faster meal preparation, meal kits and prepared meals are growing in appeal to this demographic. Meal kits that are ready-to-cook and prepared meals that are ready-to-eat both facilitate meeting nutritional needs while aiding in healthier aging overall.

Nutrition is an integral part of maintaining health. Specifically tailored diets can more effectively manage chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease. Choosing between meal kits and prepared meals depends on your individual needs and preferences. Consider your cooking ability, dietary needs, budget, and food preferences to make an informed decision.

Meals on Wheels is a well-known meal delivery system, but numerous options are available for meal kits and prepared meals. Consider ordering a trial service to see if a particular option might be a good option for you.

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