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Cooking a low sodium diet for the elderly

Updated on February 17, 2013

Learning to cook a low sodium diet

Learning to cook a low sodium diet became a focal point in my life after my darling mom, Gertie, ended up in the ER in May 2011 with difficulty breathing and swelling in her feet. The diagnosis was heart failure - not all that uncommon in a 94 year old. But, in order to keep her healthy and happy, her diet had to have a full overhaul and it was about to be low salt to the rescue!

Similar to my panic when my house was fitted with oxygen tanks for mom, my thoughts raced to "OH NO! How do I do that!!!" After I calmed down and started to investigate, I found that cooking a low salt diet really isn't all that difficult although I'd be lyng if I said that there wasn't a learning curve and some challenges ahead. And that, dear reader, is why I'm creating this Squidoo lens.

Make sure to bookmark this lens as I expect to add to the article frequently with more tips and tricks and recipes that i figure them out. I'm pretty certain there's a lot more to learn and share.

If momma ain't happy, I ain't happy
If momma ain't happy, I ain't happy

The USDA guidelines on low sodium diets

I started investigating exactly how much sodium was recommended for a typical diet. And, here's where the spider web started...

First off, I thought that "salt" and "sodium" were the same thing. But, noooooo....it has to be much more confusing than that!

Salt vs. Sodium

6 grams of salt (which is about 1 tsp) contains 2,325 milligrams (mg) of sodium.

Got that?

My mom's salt recommendation was so low...

I thought!

For simplicity, we'll talk about sodium as that's how all of the FDA labels note salt content in foods.

So, my mom's doctor recommended 1800 mg a day - that's just less than a teaspoon of salt. I thought it was going to be incredibly hard to try and provide meals with that little bit until I saw that the USDA recommends 1500mg of sodium a day for individuals over 51, African Americans, and individuals who have renal or heart issues.

So, now I was grateful that the doctor was generous in allowing my mom another 300 mg a day (it could have been the tears that sprang to my eyes that influenced him).

So, I now know that it is possible to keep to 1800 mg of sodium a day, but how could I make the meals flavorful, satisfying, and make them something mom would like to eat? Since she's so elderly and a bit frail, I'm always conscious of keeping her weight up - she's the same 130 lbs today that she was 4 years ago when she came to live with me. So, I was succeeding - before the low salt. Now I had a challenge ahead....

Luckily for me, my mom is about the easiest patient one could ever hope for. She rarely challenges me regarding the care I give her and will do about anything I ask. I know how lucky I am to have her to care for.

Salt substitutes of interest

In my quest for reducing sodium in my mom's diet, I hit the internet. The below are some good finds on Amazon.

Note: I don't like the salt substitutes that contain potassium chloride. For one thing, I find the taste plain old horrible (yuck!) and, second off, adding too much potassium to one's diet can affect the heart with arrthymia - I kind of see that as sending mom out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Sodium Free, Low Sodium, Reduced Sodium, Light in Sodium, Unsalted

AKA - OY! My aching head...

Ok, to add more confusion to the mix, I had to learn what the above terms meant. I'm not sure who in the FDA has a sense of humor but it's obvious someone does. Through a lot of digging, I figured out the below:

  • Sodium free - the items you've got in your hot little hand has less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Low Sodium - this item has 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Reduced Sodium - here's where they really try to confuse ya. A "reduced sodium" item has 25% less sodium than the regular product. So, if the regular product has 2000 mg of sodium per serving, this "reduce sodium" item still has a whopping 1500 mg per serving. That'll make any ankle swell!
  • Light in Sodium - this product has 50% less sodium than the regular product. So, in the above example, a "light in sodium" product will have 1000 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Unsalted, aka without added salt, aka no added salt- these products did not even see a salt shaker when they were being prepared. But, beware, still check the label as every food has some sort of sodium just naturally occurring. The prime offenders are proteins such as beef, chicken and pork.

Tip:

Anything labeled as "reduced" (such as reduced calorie, reduced sugar, reduced fat, etc) contains 25% less of the reduced item than the offending regular product.

Low sodium cooking just got easier with this pasta salad

Low sodium cooking just got easier with this pasta salad
Low sodium cooking just got easier with this pasta salad

This light and delicious low sodium recipe packs in the flavor with loads of herbs. Substitute any herbs you prefer but I just lovebasil the best. A bed of arugula will make this meal complete and even more nutritious!

  • Prep time: 20 min
  • Ready in: 20 min
  • Yields: 10 (1/2 cup servings)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups of cooked pasta
  • 1.5 cups broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup sliced carrots
  • 1 cup yellow squash
  • 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
  • 1 cup julienned basil leaves
  • 3 T balsamic vinegar
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 t black pepper
  • 2 T Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Mix cooked pasta, broccoli, carrots, squash, tomatoes and basil leaves in a large bowl. Note: an easy way to julienne basil leaves is to stack them one atop the other and roll them up. Cut them 5 or 6 times and you'll have perfect strips every time.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix the vinegar, oil, garlic, and pepper. Pour over the pasta mixture. For the best flavor, do this the day before serving.
  3. Before serving, toss the pasta well and add the Parmesan cheese to the top. This is SO good and contains just 59mg of sodium per 1/2 cup serving.
Cast your vote for Recipe Idea: Low sodium Summer Pasta Salad

Measuring portions is key to living a low sodium diet

I figured out this trick from my years of dieting. When I'm full bore on a diet, I need to measure my food so I'm not fooling myself about what an actual portion was. I found it too offending to have to use measuring cups at the table with dinner guests so I bought utensils that were exactly 1/4, 1/2 or 1 cup. That way, I knew that a ladle of stuffing was XXX calories. A much gentler way to be reminded not to take seconds.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

It's not just for the Simon and Garfunkel any longer

Your best defense in cooking a low sodium diet is to flavor with herbs, natural herbs. Luckily for my mom, I'm quite the herbophile (well, it should be a word) and have a lot of established herbs that come back year after year.

When shopping for my garden this year, I went herb crazy and bought 6 different types of basil - have lemon basil, cinnamon basil, bush basil, vietnamese basil, purple basil and plain old green basil. I also picked up 3 different types of parsley, 4 thymes, a big rosemary bush, 2 different sages, some tarragon, and 4 types of oregano. That ought to keep her guessin'!

A few of my herbs ready for the garden - Herbs are the BEST way to cook low sodium

Click thumbnail to view full-size
One of my favorite mixes: Red basil, green basil, and rosemary.This oregano has been with me 10 years now. I strip the leaves and add to chicken soup.This sage is a long lasting beast too - delicious for flavoring chicken or pork.I just thought my clematis was purdy....This is a new type of mint I bought. Beware of mints though as they will overrun everything. I bury them right in the pot to contain the roots and keep them from wildly spreading.Golden sage awaiting it's spot in a nicer pot.More red basil. I love this on top of ripe tomatoes sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and balsamic - 0 sodium!
One of my favorite mixes: Red basil, green basil, and rosemary.
One of my favorite mixes: Red basil, green basil, and rosemary.
This oregano has been with me 10 years now. I strip the leaves and add to chicken soup.
This oregano has been with me 10 years now. I strip the leaves and add to chicken soup.
This sage is a long lasting beast too - delicious for flavoring chicken or pork.
This sage is a long lasting beast too - delicious for flavoring chicken or pork.
I just thought my clematis was purdy....
I just thought my clematis was purdy....
This is a new type of mint I bought. Beware of mints though as they will overrun everything. I bury them right in the pot to contain the roots and keep them from wildly spreading.
This is a new type of mint I bought. Beware of mints though as they will overrun everything. I bury them right in the pot to contain the roots and keep them from wildly spreading.
Golden sage awaiting it's spot in a nicer pot.
Golden sage awaiting it's spot in a nicer pot.
More red basil. I love this on top of ripe tomatoes sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and balsamic - 0 sodium!
More red basil. I love this on top of ripe tomatoes sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and balsamic - 0 sodium!

Low Sodium Recipes I've found or adapted

In my quest for finding decent recipes, I've gotten pretty creative in my own right. The below articles are recipes I've made and have liked.

Note: when you first start cooking low sodium foods, you might be a bit disappointed with the results. That's because 1) you're not used to the actual taste of food without extra salt and 2) you haven't adjusted the recipes to your taste. Don't give up. With a bit of work

Good balsamic vinegars

Get out your wallets - good quality balsamic vinegar doesn't come cheap, but a bottle lasts forever!

Herbs make a delicious flavoring for any soups - This bundle of thyme and rosemary is about to embellish a pot of chicken soup

Herbs make a delicious flavoring for any soups - This bundle of thyme and rosemary is about to embellish a pot of chicken soup
Herbs make a delicious flavoring for any soups - This bundle of thyme and rosemary is about to embellish a pot of chicken soup

Arm yourself with knowledge about low sodium foods

Pocket Guide to Low Sodium Foods
Pocket Guide to Low Sodium Foods

This book is the best guide I've found to keep in my purse. I can quickly look up about any food when mom and I are out rambling the streets. With this guide, I know that I can continue on my quest to keep dear Gert happy, healthy and much less puffy!

 

Tips and tricks for cooking, serving, and eating a low sodium diet - aka - AHA! I'm getting there!

The below tips and tricks are items I've picked up on my quest to keep Gert unswollen.

  1. My favorite tip of all time: When shopping, I take a sharpee pen with me and mark the sodium content and serving size right on the front of the package I'm buying. This way, I'm not constantly reading teeny labels while trying to cook.
  2. Take the salt shaker off the table! If you must have a salt shaker, plug a few of the holes with superglue so that the salt comes out slower.
  3. Prepare and vacuum seal your own meals instead of buying prepared dinners which are almost always laden with sodium.
  4. Make your own chicken, vegetable or beef stock and freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop them out and store in a plastic bag. This way, you can just grab 2 or 3 soup ice cubes for flavoring rice, potatoes, or vegetables.
  5. Use the best balsamic vinegars you can find to flavor foods - try to get at least one aged 15 years (25 is even better but sure pricey!). Balsamic vinegar has long been a favorite of mine for about everything. Since this type of vinegar is so flavorful, not much is needed to flavor foods beautifully. I personally have 3 different balsamic vinegars in my cupboard and they are all 0 sodium. Be safe though and check yours before adding to soups, stews, salad dressing, etc.
  6. Purge your cupboards of high sodium food items to help you stay on task.
  7. As an FYI: chocolate items seem to have more sodium than their vanilla counterparts. Chocolate oreos, for example, have 160mg of sodium in two cookies. The vanilla oreos have 120mg of sodium (well, it's still less!).
  8. If you're a cheese-a-holic, you might think you're out of luck but not really. Grate cheese and sprinkle on sandwiches, salads, or in soups. You'll use less than a full slice. Store unused portions in the freezer.
  9. Make sure to read the labels on combination spices. Most combination spices (particularly steak seasonings) contain an astonishing amount of sodium. Steer clear of these!

Your daily sodium intake

Until just yesterday, May 11, 2011, I had no idea of how abusive I was when it came to the old salt shaker. I'm curious if you are.

Do you monitor how much sodium is in your diet?

See results

Here's some helpful articles on eating a low sodium diet

I did a fair amount of research when we found out that mom had to have her sodium restricted. The below articles really helped me understand the impact that sodium has on our bodies and health.

I'm interested in any comments or suggestions for strengthening this lens. - Please talk to me!

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    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 4 years ago

      I agree and will be using this to help reduce the salt in my own diet

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love your idea of using fresh, home grown herbs to reduce sodium in recipes. We all should be eating this way, not just the elderly. Beautiful job!

    • chrisstapper profile image

      chrisstapper 5 years ago

      Thank you for this lens! I will be sure to try out some of your recipes.:)

      Also, i'm working on a low-salt-diet lens as well (way under construction, though). I made a reference to your explanation about 'sodium free' and 'reduced..' etc. I hope you don't mind.

    • profile image

      Namaste12 6 years ago

      Great lens.. Although, I hope I never have to watch my sodium....mmmmm love salt.

    • profile image

      Runnn 6 years ago

      Runners do need to replace their sodium. Lolz...

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @Selbst: I made that pasta last week. It's better the next day, and the next, and the next. Mom loved it. I changed it around each day by adding green peppers and onions one day, a bit of steak the next. Etc. It's a very malleable recipe. Have fun with it!

    • Selbst profile image

      Selbst 6 years ago

      Your Summer Pasta Salad recipe looks great. Maybe I will try it tomorrow :)

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @Scarlettohairy: Yes, that's what I had planned. I've gotten pretty creative at seasonings but stuff still seems bland to me. I like hot sauce which helps but mom can't tolerate it. Thanks for the idea. Will do!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Maybe as you come across new ways to season dishes without adding sodium, add that recipe here. Maybe show how to season chicken with prepackaged seasoning to make delicious meals. I love specific ways to do something new; sinks into my brain a lot better!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      I'd suggest some amazon modules in the side widget to feature books on low or no-sodium cooking.