July 22, 2024


Health Can Do

Doing a food gift basket for someone who’s had a heart attack? What to choose, what to lose.

9 min read
Doing a food gift basket for someone who’s had a heart attack? What to choose, what to lose.

If a friend, colleague, or loved one has had a heart attack, stent, or heart surgery, a get well food basket is a thoughtful and helpful way to show that you care.

But bear in mind that this can be a tricky time for people with food!

So let’s talk about the not-so-helpful food gifts as well as better choices, so you can help nourish and get them off on the right foot with eating again.  

A heart event can affect a person’s relationship with food 

In the immediate days and weeks after a heart attack or similar health calamity, many patients are filled with self-blame: “Did I have too many burgers?” “I should have eaten more salads.”

Your friend or loved one may come out of the hospital determined to make major changes, including drastic cuts to fat, sodium, sugar, carbs, and/or cholesterol, depending on who they’ve been listening to. 

So how can you support them?

First, don’t reinforce that guilt with a basket of low-joy low-fat low-salt low-carb low-calorie low-sodium food that says, “You, my friend, are going on a diet!” Groan.

On the other hand, you also don’t want to show up with chips, kettle corn, or hard candy – all items I’ve found in so-called “heart healthy” gift baskets you can order online!  

Graphic showing a Venn diagram with overlapping circles: healthy, delicious, and right for you, to illustrate the "sweet spot"Instead, let’s aim for food gifts that start your loved one off on the right foot, by aiming for what I call the “sweet spot:” Food that satisfies, is easy to prepare, and still supports their recovery and future heart health.

So what to lose, what to choose?

(I’ve created a printable shopping list summarizing all of these ideas.)

Lose the “low-fat” foods

Skip the light peanut butter and low-fat salad dressing. 97% fat-free ham? No thanks. 

We actually want more of certain fats, and those low-fat products are often higher in sodium, sugar, and other additives we don’t need.

Instead, choose healthy fats

How about a nice olive oil? For gifts, consider going beyond your basic grocery store oil and stop by a specialty olive oil retailer or Italian market for an amazing array of choices. Oils infused with flavours like lemon or basil are fun to experiment with.picture of basil-infused olive oil and white wine vinegar

Or include a jar of natural peanut butter. I find that many heart patients are relieved to hear that they can have peanut butter! Or go for something different like cashew or sunflower seed butter.

(But skip the Nutella! Sorry, that’s mostly sugar. You can make a creamy, delicious, dark chocolatey spread from cashew butter and way less sugar in about 10 minutes.) 

Lose the highly processed snacks

Many snack products seem “healthy” because of buzzwords on the package: “Gluten-free,” “organic,” “plant-based”, or “keto.” Even “low-fat” (again). 

But store-bought low-fat muffins, pretzels, rice crackers, and keto snacks won’t do your heart patient much good.

Instead, go for whole food snacks

How about some whole-grain crackers like these, popcorn (also a whole grain), or even pea snacks? (Those ones are reasonable for sodium.) Our hearts love that fibre.

picture of whole grain cracker examples: Finn Crisp and Crunchmaster Multigrains

Or give some interesting nuts or seeds! People often think almonds and walnuts for heart health, but actually all nuts and seeds have mostly heart-healthy fats, so have some fun with it! Seeds usually have even more protein, and pumpkin seeds are relatively affordable, at least at Costco.

Picture showing a variety of nuts and seeds: Pumpkin seeds, cashew butter, peanuts, cashews, and dark chocolate with almonds.

Even lightly salted nuts are fine, and most people prefer them. Check the label. If it says less than 10% mg or so per serving, I wouldn’t worry, given the well-established benefits of eating nuts. (Less than 5% sodium per serving is ideal, but tough to find with snack foods.)

Nutrition facts for Costco Kirkland peanuts

Nutrition facts for Costco Kirkland peanuts

Nutrition facts for Costco Kirkland salted cashews

Nutrition facts for Costco Kirkland salted cashews

Or if you’re confident your friend would enjoy, you can give them a few different tins of canned sardines. (That’s a big no for most people, but I find some older men love them!) 

Lose salt substitutes

Products like “NoSalt” or Windsor’s “Salt-Free” are made of potassium chloride, which isn’t safe for everyone, depending on their medications and kidney function. 

Sea salt isn’t a salt substitute, but people often think it is. It’s mostly sodium chloride like regular table salt, so won’t help reduce sodium intake. (The trace minerals aren’t anywhere near enough to benefit health either.)

Instead, experiment with herbs and spices

If you can find an interesting herb or spice blend, go for it, IF the person is comfortable in the kitchen. 

Products like Mrs. Dash are fine, although I find few people love the original. If you can give something more unusual like the Southwest Chipotle or Extra Spicy, you might have a winner.

Lose the red wine

Sorry to say, but the evidence for red wine and heart health is pretty slim, and the downsides of drinking more than a 5 oz glass or so a day start to be pretty serious. 

Of course you can include a bottle of wine in the gift basket if you like! A small glass a day isn’t really problematic, but we need to let go of the idea that it’s some kind of heart-health elixir.

Instead, give other fun beverages

After a heart event people seem to think all they can drink is water! (That’s why I created this list of ten other heart-friendly beverages.)

The best ones for gifting include tea (green and otherwise) or sparkling flavoured water. (But not so much sparkling juice. Check that there’s no sugar on the nutrition facts.)

Examples of heart-healthy beverages: Watermelon-flavoured sparkling water and chai spice tea

A nice bag of coffee beans is an option, as long as they haven’t been advised to avoid it. (Coffee is fine in moderation for most people with heart concerns, early in the day, but occasionally someone finds that it triggers arrhythmias or affects sleep.)

Lose the canned soup

Even most reduced-sodium canned soups have way too much salt in them.

Plus many canned soups lack nutrition. This Campbell’s 25% Less Sodium Chicken Noodle Soup has only 3 grams of protein per serving!

Instead, help with more nutritious meals

After a heart event people are often extremely fatigued and overwhelmed, so giving them ready-to-eat food is a fantastic gift. 

Even someone with a doting caregiver who cooks for them can benefit from a meal drop-off, so the caregiver gets a break.

If you aren’t in a position to make something yourself, see if you can find a local delivery service, preferably with nutrition facts that you can check, like this or this.

(Note that I haven’t tried either of those. Just to give you an idea.)

Or surprisingly, many frozen meals offer much better nutrition than canned soup. But you have to read the labels! Look for at least 15-20 grams of protein and a no more than about 600 mg of sodium, like this Healthy Choice Power Bowl or this Blue Menu Protein Bowl.

(Note frozen meals are often very low in calories, so most people will need MORE than just the frozen entree for a meal.)

Lose the store-bought trail mix 

Store-bought trail mix is quite high in sugar, thanks to a heavy hand with raisins, cranberries, or candy. Check the label. You’re looking for around 8 grams or less per serving.

(Similarly, I would avoid dried fruit for the gift basket. Best used in very small amounts.)

Instead, emphasize the nuts and seeds

Hunt for a lower-sugar trail mix or make your own if possible. Or send a fun assortment of nuts, as discussed above. 

Other good stuff to welcome them home

Fresh fruit

You can’t go wrong with this, even with diabetes. If you’re local and able to drop it off yourself, perfect. (If not, you can have fruit delivered, but it’s costly.) 

Colourful mixed berry baskets

Fancy oatmeal, granola 

More fibre – the cholesterol-friendly kind! Just check the label again, and look for products with about 8 grams of sugar or less per serving, like this lower sugar granola or this muesli mix.

(You don’t need high-end products like that for heart health, but they’re fun for gift giving!)

Canned vegetables

Surprise, bet you didn’t think I would say that! Most canned vegetables are high in sodium, but there are a few winners out there. 

Examples of canned vegetables

One of my favourites for jazzing up eggs, wraps, or pasta is sun-dried tomatoes in oil. Read the label, because some are very high in sodium, some are just fine. (Sun-dried tomatoes packaged dry are low in sodium but more work to prepare.)

If you hit a well-stocked Italian market you may be able to find marinated mushrooms or roasted red peppers that aren’t too high in sodium. A fun way to jazz up a veggie charcuterie board!Nutrition facts for lower sodium marinated mushrooms

Or marinated artichoke hearts? Not usually low in sodium, but a great taste booster on an otherwise low-sodium meal, and more fibre than most canned veggies. (Note this is a very small serving size.)

Nutrition facts for lower sodium marinated artichokes

Finally, look for no-salt-added tomatoes, if you think the recipient is up for cooking. Very useful! These are widely available, so for a gift item I might buy something that looks a little more fancy than your typical grocery brands.No salt added canned tomatoes

Another fun way to sneak in more veggies is antipasto or salsa. Just check the sodium — some aren’t bad!

For those who are ready to experiment with new ingredients

After a few months, if your friend has gone through cardiac rehab, met with a dietitian, picked up some cookbooks, and seems keen to try some new recipes, you could help them out by picking up ingredients they may not be as familiar with, such as:

  • Whole, intact grains like farro, buckwheat, and barley
  • No-salt-added canned beans
  • Nutritional yeast 
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp hearts
  • Various flavours of vinegar

No salt added six bean medley product

Bag of farro

Bags of chai seeds and hemp hearts

What about heart surgery patients?

All of the above applies to people who’ve had bypass or another heart surgery, but they’ll benefit even more from friends and family who drop off appetizing ready-to-eat meals. 

Sometimes it takes a few weeks or even months for a person’s appetite to bounce back and recovery to progress, so during this time, getting enough to eat, especially protein, is the highest priority. 

Considerations like more vegetables and lower sodium actually take a back seat during this time. They’re important, but not as critical as adequate nutrition, if that’s an issue. 

So if Grandpa had a triple bypass and really wants roast beef, don’t sweat it. Sometimes this can be a source of confusion and conflict in families though. (When in doubt, check with your friendly local dietitian!)

Food gifts to help your heart patient celebrate

Once the initial stress of the hospital visit wears off, people living with heart disease want to enjoy holidays and birthdays like everyone else. (Perhaps even more so.)

At these happy gift-giving opportunities, I’d lean more towards the fun heart-healthy foods: More dark chocolate and spiced nuts, less barley and chia seeds, depending on their personality. What will most help them relax and celebrate?

Remember their “heart-iversary”!

Make a note of the date of your loved one’s heart attack or other event, because they will!

People are often at a loss for how to commemorate this milestone, so if you appear with a thoughtful gift like these or these, created by women living with heart disease, you’ll make their day!

"Life in hearts" mugs

Ready to hit the store?

Heart-healthy eating, it turns out, can be more flexible and enjoyable than most people realize. Pack a gift basket with nourishing, unique, satisfying foods, and you’ll help them be one step closer to realizing that! 

Anything that they enjoy and that gets them eating more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, or fish, and healthy fats, in a low to moderate sodium or sugar way, is a winner.

Quick summary of what to add to your heart healthy food gift basket:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Lower-sugar trail mix
  • Roasted peas
  • Canned sardines (if you’re sure they’ll enjoy!)
  • Sparkling flavoured water (check no sugar)
  • Coffee beans (if they haven’t been advised to avoid)
  • Tea (green or otherwise)
  • Sun-dried tomatoes in oil
  • Marinated mushrooms
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Marinated artichoke hearts
  • Antipasto
  • Salsa
  • Flavoured / high quality olive oil
  • Natural peanut butter, cashew butter, sunflower seed butter, or similar
  • Fancy oatmeal, granola (less than 8 grams per serving)
  • Frozen meals (>15-20 grams of protein, <600 mg of sodium)
  • Herb or spice blends
  • No-salt-added canned tomatoes
  • Whole, intact grains like farro, buckwheat, and barley
  • No-salt-added canned beans
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp hearts
  • Various flavours of vinegar

Print out this shopping list and off you go.

Heart health food gift shopping list

Note: As always, nothing on this post is sponsored! Just some examples to help you bring heart healthy eating to real life.

Questions or additional ideas? Chime in on the Sweet Spot Heart-Healthy Facebook group.

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