New guidelines have been published aimed at driving up the quality of meals served to old people.
They set out how many calories each meal should contain as well as advice on key ingredients, such as fruit and vegetables, salads and protein.
The aim is to standardise meals to ensure elderly people are properly fed and receive all the nutrients they need for good health.
Research has shown that hundreds of thousands of elderly people in the UK are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.
The guidelines have been published by the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), which represents companies and professionals supplying meals to local authority care homes, people’s own homes and day centres.
Overall, each meal served at lunch or dinner-time should contain a minimum of 300 calories, 15g of protein and include a good source of starch and a minimum of an 80g serving of vegetables, the guidelines said.
Desserts other than fruit should provide at least 200 calories while breakfast should carry a minimum of 380 calories and 8g of protein.
Five portions of fruit and vegetables should be available each day alongside a minimum of seven drinks.
The nutritional standard also calls on caterers to take account of special dietary needs, such as providing soft food that is easy to eat, and to take account of medical conditions which require special diets.
Derek Johnson, NACC chairman, said: “The nutrition standard will ensure consistency in the nutritional content of food provided throughout the care catering sector.
“It is however still vital that government support this standard and are committed to providing care for the elderly, not only allowing them a real choice in care services, but also saving the NHS money in the years to come.”
Dr Mike Stroud, chairman of the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (Bapen), said: “Older people living at home can be more vulnerable to malnutrition as they may be unable to shop and cook for themselves.
“This makes them more vulnerable to increased infections and other complications if they have to go into hospital.
“It is important that initiatives helping to ensure older people have adequate nutrition continue to be supported.”
Data from Bapen has shown that 40% of all patients admitted to hospital are already malnourished when they go in.
Malnutrition in care homes is estimated to range from 30% to 42% of all residents.