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Mealtime Made Easy: 6 Tips for Caregivers

How to meet nutritional and mobility needs around the kitchen table

spinner image caregiving worker making sandwich for care recipient in her home
Getty Images

Among the many responsibilities of being a family caregiver is ensuring that your loved one’s nutritional requirements are met and that food is provided in a safe manner that caters to their needs.

Rachel Hiles, 36, knows this responsibility all too well after spending seven years caring for her grandmother with dementia while running her own business.

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In the beginning, her grandmother, Barbara Hiles, was able to perform basic tasks such as making a sandwich. But as her condition declined, the level of care she needed intensified, requiring Rachel to come up with innovative ways to prevent food-related mishaps.

Barbara had fallen a few times in the kitchen and once filled the house with smoke while trying to use the stove. To prevent this from happening again, Rachel realized that if the pots and pans were hidden, her grandmother wouldn’t think to use the stove.

spinner image Rachel Hiles and her grandmother at mealtimes
Caregiver Rachel Hiles and her grandmother Barbara Hiles at mealtimes
Courtesy Rachel Hiles

The solution that worked for Rachel may not meet the needs of every caregiver’s situation. To address this, we consulted Siera Holley, an outpatient dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She shared advice on promoting nutritional health and food safety for caregivers of older adults.

1. Tailor your loved one’s nutrition plan to their specific condition.

It’s important to work with a primary care provider or dietitian because every health condition can greatly influence a person’s nutritional needs.

When grocery shopping, consider food allergies or intolerances and other nutrition requirements such as low sodium, high protein, vitamins and minerals. Typically, caregivers should opt for lean proteins and limit heavily processed foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat, sodium and added sugar, Holley said.

For those with strength or mobility problems, consider the packaging food comes in. If it’s difficult to open, the food is unlikely to be eaten.

2. Consult a speech pathologist for chewing and swallowing issues.

Someone who has difficulty swallowing can have that and their chewing evaluated by a speech pathologist. A specialist may recommend specific textures of food that should be consumed or suggest certain liquids, such as thickened water, to ensure safe swallowing, Holley said.

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3. Consider using specialized utensils or physical therapy to assist with daily eating.

Adaptive utensils, bowls and plates are designed to help people with disabilities eat independently. They may be weighted or curved to accommodate a range of needs.

If someone was recently hospitalized or injured, they may benefit from physical therapy to relearn daily living activities, which can include preparing a meal or eating, Holley suggested.  

4. Convenience is key for healthy eating.

Prewash and chop ingredients or snacks to make it convenient for loved ones to eat when they feel hungry. If they are unable to make a meal or snack, clearly label what is in each container and prepare it ahead of time.

When prepping meals, season foods with herbs rather than salt, which increases sodium, and try healthier cooking methods such as baking, roasting or grilling, Holley recommended. Take into account taste preferences.

“Our taste buds change with age, so something that’s spicy might be a lot spicier to an older person than it is to a younger person,” she said.

Toward the end of Rachel’s caregiving journey, she noticed that her grandmother struggled to recognize the plastic containers used to hold her meals. So she began prepping the bulk of her grandmother’s lunches in advance and offered her a menu of choices. This allowed her daytime caregivers to focus on providing direct assistance without the added responsibility of cooking.

“As a person gets older and they wander down the path of dementia, they are less able to make choices in their lives. So it was really important to me for my grandma to have choices,” Rachel said. “The caregiver helped her look at the menu and decide what she wanted for her entrée.”

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For caregivers and older adults in need, the Commodity Supplemental Food ProgramMeals on Wheels and other organizations can provide meal assistance.

5. Opt for high-calorie foods, and serve smaller, frequent meals to encourage eating.

Unintentional weight loss in older adults can cause additional health problems, so it’s important to find ways to pack more calories into smaller portions. This can be done by adding calorie-dense beverages such as juice, swapping broth-based soup for creamy soup, and using whole milk instead of low-fat or skim. Hearty whole grains, nut butter and healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil are also beneficial. Proteins such as chicken, fish and eggs can help prevent the loss of muscle mass, Holley said.

For some, having a large plate of food in front of them can be overwhelming. Instead, try five or six smaller meals every three to four hours in place of the standard three meals a day.  

“My grandma loved to eat. She loved food almost all the way up until the end. Food is a big part of family life. If it weren't for my grandma, I wouldn't eat any vegetables to this day.”

 Rachel Hiles

6. Follow the four steps to food safety.

Even when caregivers follow food safety measures, accidents can happen. Rachel recalled when the refrigerator broke and she asked friends to bring food over while she was at work. Unfortunately, someone left a cooler of food on ice, which her grandmother ate the next day after the ice had melted, sending her to the hospital for almost a week with food poisoning.

Always keep in mind the four steps to food safety from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.
  • Separate: To avoid cross contamination, keep raw meat and eggs separate from foods that won’t require cooking.
  • Cook: Use a food thermometer to ensure food is heated to its required temperature for safe consumption.
  • Chill: Make sure to store food in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of cooking, and thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator, under cold water or in the microwave.

“With age, there are changes within the body, with organ function and reduced immunity,” Holley said. “So it can become more difficult for the body to fight off what it recognizes as foreign, such as the germs that cause foodborne illness.”

Rachel’s grandmother, Barbara Hiles, died at the age of 86 in January 2022. To read more about Rachel’s  caregiving journey, visit her website at TakingCareofGrandma.com.

Video: Quick Tricks to Make Life Easier for Caregivers at Mealtime

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