CVD is common in older adults. Consumption of ‘meat’ (beef, pork, lamb, game, poultry, seafood, eggs) and dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt) is encouraged in older adults as these foods provide protein and nutrients such as essential fatty acids, Ca, Fe, Zn and vitamins A, D and B12 required for healthy ageing. However, these foods also contain saturated fats considered detrimental to cardiovascular health. To determine the effect of their consumption on CVD risk we assessed associations between fat intake from ‘meat’ and dairy foods and serum cholesterol levels in 226 aged-care residents (mean age 85·5 years, 70 % female). Dietary intake was determined over 2 d using visual estimation of plate waste. Fat content of foods was determined using nutrition analysis software (Xyris, Australia). Fasting serum total cholesterol (TC), LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol were measured, and the TC:HDL-cholesterol ratio calculated. Associations were determined using random-effect models adjusted for CVD risk factors using STATA/IC 13.0. Total fat and saturated fat from ‘meat’ and dairy foods were associated with higher serum HDL-cholesterol levels, and dairy fat intake and number of servings were associated with a lower TC:HDL-cholesterol ratio. Every 10 g higher intake of fat and saturated fat from dairy products, and each additional serving was associated with a −0·375 (95 % CI −0·574, −0·175; P = 0·0002), a −0·525 (95 % CI −0·834, −0·213; P = 0·001) and a −0·245 (95 % CI −0·458, −0·033; P = 0·024) lower TC:HDL-cholesterol ratio, respectively. Provision of dairy foods and ‘meat’ in recommended amounts to institutionalised older adults potentially improves intakes of key nutrients with limited detriment to cardiovascular health.