The cheapest ways that you can increase flavor in foods is by adding fats and salt. Both flood the palette and cause wonderful sensations that help increase the enjoyment that we get from eating.
However, other ingredients are far better for people in general and especially for seniors as they do not add to physical problems that often risk senior health.
Olive oil - Though a fat, olive oil is actually helpful in reducing bad blood cholesterol and raising good cholesterol. Common throughout many countries in the world, olive oil is starting to make its benefits known and into American kitchens.
Olive oil comes in several different varieties from a very light amber color which has a fairly light flavor to extra virgin olive oil which is a relatively dark green color. Extra virgin olive oil is that oil which is obtained through the first press of the olives and is far greater in flavor.
Only personal preference will tell you what kind of olive oil to use but it does grow on you over time, adding much flavor to food. The trick is to make sure that the kind of olive oil that you use will complement the food that you are cooking, not replace its flavor.
Use it for pan frying, a pan lubricant, or even as a baste for many foods to increase the flavor as well as add functionality. I often use a bit of olive oil on top of foods that I am cooking to help other toppings like spices to adhere, keep them from burning and help release the flavors.
It's a fat, but a good fat and one that you can use to help increase food flavor for seniors.
Garlic - We may be on a bit of an Italian kick here but garlic is a far more versatile food ingredient than often given credit for.
Most people think of garlic as something that is primarily added to spaghetti, lasagna, or garlic bread. Some only think of garlic in its raw form or as a minced product that comes in a jar.
Those forms are great but experiment with granulated or powdered garlic as well. Personally, I have found that the dry powdered garlic is somewhat more bitter and is likely to become airborne. So keeping a one pound jar of the granulated in my spice cabinet has become a requirement in my kitchen.
While good, you can add garlic to meats, brown or white sauces, and salads. I even add it to eggs. Despite adding garlic powder to eggs for hundreds of people, there has never even been a comment about garlic.
It adds to the flavor but does not take it over. The last church function that I cooked them for saw more than twice the eggs consumed and dozens of raves.
Garlic is also known to be heart-healthy though there is question about the benefits of the dry versions.
While garlic has its own flavor, used correctly, you can use it in a variety of foods without it becoming a garlic meal. Unlike other ingredients like cinnamon, garlic changes and increases the flavor but takes on the characteristics of the food itself.
Onion - Though similar to garlic in some respects, onion probably isn't quite as versatile. It can however make a very big difference in foods both in the nose and on the taste buds. Used properly and minced small enough, onion enhances food without taking over the food.
Use onion in almost any meat or poultry dish, soufflés, white or brown sauces. Add it to soup for additional flavor and to give the soup a bit of a bite.
Cinnamon - Other spices such as allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and such can also be grouped into this category. They are often referred to as a nose spice because even without many taste buds, people can still enjoy these flavors.
Primarily used for pastries and desserts, these spices can also be added to hot cereals, pancakes, waffles, applesauce or other cooked or minced fruit dish. Experiment with it but avoid over-use. Over exposure can lead to a dislike for the spices.
Smoke flavorings - Used in very small portions, liquid smoke flavor is one of the cheapest and most powerful food additives that you can find. Where bacon or ham might be considered unhealthy, smoke flavoring helps to replicate the strong taste without adding the animal fats, salt, or nitrates.
Add liquid smoke to eggs, soups, sauces, or anything else that you would like to flavor like a smoked meat. There may be others available but the two that I've found are hickory and mesquite flavors. Be careful which you use where though because they are not always interchangeable.
White cheeses - Before recommending these, I would suggest making sure that the senior that you are cooking for does not suffer from any significant amount of lactose intolerance. While most seniors can handle a small portion of cheese, not all can and you don't want to cause any intestinal discomfort.
One of the most widely used white cheeses for adding flavor is parmesan cheese. If you are not aware of it, it isn't always found in the little green can and it is preferable that you get it in block form or freshly shredded. The packaged green variety isn't as versatile and isn't nearly as tasty.
Another great white cheese is Romano cheese. Not quite as strong as parmesan cheese, Romano has a distinctive flavor that you either like or don't and there isn't any getting around it.
Feta cheese is often used in Greek or Italian cooking, is quite strong and a wonderful "nose" cheese. It smells as good as it tastes, which is why it is so well liked.
Blue cheese is known as a white cheese though also known for both its dark blue molds that grow through it. Its wonderful strong flavor and terrific smell excite the taste buds and can really change the flavor of most foods. A bit more oily than feta cheese, it may not be as good for cooking though like most things, it is a matter of taste.
Experiment with white cheeses. They are far lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol and in many cases, offer more taste. Most are drier than yellow cheeses and you can keep them longer too.
Add white cheeses to salads, eggs, soufflés, meats, and anything else that you can think of.
Vinegars - There are many great vinegars though most people are most familiar with the traditional white and cider versions. Other malt, balsamic, and wine vinegars are also very popular and vary with their application in foods.
All vinegars are made through a fermentation process which leaves a mild pungent to wildly sour flavor. Depending upon what it is that you want to accomplish, vinegars can be added to foods to emphasize flavors without making the dish taste vinegary.
As an example, I add a tablespoon of white vinegar to a large pot of chicken or turkey soup, early in the cooking process to add a bit of zip without the vinegar taste. Practice and adding it slowly are the keys.
Soup stock pastes - I don't know where else you get this stuff but it is available at both Costco and Sam's Club.
You are probably familiar with the use of bouillon cubes as a way of making a broth. If so, you know that it basically doesn't work well, the flavor is severely lacking, and if not for the food color and the salt, their addition would be hardly noticeable.
Enter stock paste in either chicken or beef flavor. It comes in a small tub and is about the consistency of lard but is in fact concentrated stock with months of shelf life (kept refrigerated) and has more meat flavor and far less sodium per serving.
The salt level is still pretty high and isn't recommended for making a straight broth soup for seniors but when added to sauces, spaghetti, soups, gravy, meat dishes, and even pork dishes, its concentrated flavor adds a tremendous richness that you cannot duplicate any other way. Soup stocks can actually make foods too strong for most people, but for seniors who don't taste food as well, its quite a treat.
Cooking some of your meats in a heavy broth is a great way to up the flavor of the meat, especially chicken or turkey. Beef broth adds richness and flavor to beef and lean pork without making it taste like a steak.
Caution: There is still quite a bit of salt in soup stocks but far less salt and more real flavor than with powdered or cubed bullion cubes. Be sure to only add salt after all other ingredients are added.
There are quite a few different ways of cooking foods and ingredients that can be added to increase food flavor without adding health risks. Watch labels, experiment, and become creative.