A carers’ guide to encouraging the person we care for to eat


As carers, many of us can relate to mealtimes being a daily struggle with the person we care for. From ensuring they are eating ‘the right stuff’ to keep them healthy, to finding ways to keep them hydrated. It’s not just the practical challenges though.

Illustration of two women discussing food.

‘Battling’ over food can be an emotionally exhausting experience for everyone. We opened up this topic in both our community and on one of our cuppas.


Carers have been sharing their challenges, but also top tips for coping and sometimes even winning. We’ve broken these into top tips for supporting ourselves emotionally. And practical top tips for getting those calories and nutrients into the day.



Emotions and food

Carers shared that one of the biggest ‘things’ with eating, is “worry”. Such as worry over calories, nutrition, and hydration. But also frustration at what can be seen as difficult or challenging behaviour. And exhaustion from the worry and from all the research and planning we do, as we try to come up with new and inventive ways to encourage eating and drinking. But also, to simply make food fun again.


There is also ‘the coming to terms with’ a new situation. For example, if our Mum or Dad had always been the one in charge of mealtimes as we grew up, and we now find the tables reversed, we may have feelings we find difficult, as we adapt to this shift. Meals can be strongly linked to memories, often happy memories, and this can feel “bitter sweet” or “happy sad''.


And sometimes we feel guilty that we can’t get the person we care for to eat enough or eat the right stuff. Of course, this isn’t actually our fault, but it can certainly feel like it sometimes. And some carers share that sometimes it can feel like professionals are laying the blame at our feet.


That’s a lot to manage - especially as it’s only one part of what we do in a day! But as always, carers have shared the many ways they are navigating tricky meal times, and we’ve captured them below.



Looking after ourselves, during mealtimes with the person we care for

It’s so important we take care of ourselves, when we’re having mealtime battles. This is how some carers are doing it;

Illustration of couple eating dinner.

1. Consider the emotional reasons why the person we care for may not be eating

Pausing to consider the reasons ‘why’ the person we care for struggles to eat can be enlightening. Depending on what we ‘find’, it may give us a little more empathy or patience. Or it may open up a conversation that could help us reach a solution collaboratively with the person we care for. Either of which might just help us cope a bit better.


For example, for some, any challenges may be about ‘control’. Perhaps they’ve lost lots of control over their life, but food is something they can have some control over - even if that control is saying ‘no’ or being challenging.


There may be something around ‘safety’ too. If the person we care for knows that we will keep trying, then they’re safe to push against us. Some carers shared that there can be power in ‘yielding’ and giving back control. If there is no one to ‘fight against’, then there is no fight to be had.


This can feel very scary as a carer however, as ultimately we want the person we care for to to eat. Sometimes pausing or stepping back can be enlightening however.


Sometimes the person we care for needs reassurance around eating. For some, they may simply like our company, rather than eating alone. Or it could be that having our (or someone else's) company encourages them to eat more. Although some carers felt that this was also about controlling them. They felt beholden to meal times. This can be very stressful. And in some cases can damage our own relationship with food and mealtimes.


Identifying these underlying reasons can better allow us to have conversations with the person we care for, and understand that refusing food is not always the only issue.


2. Take a break

We may feel like we have an obligation to be the person cooking and supervising every single meal. However, if mealtimes are always stressful, we may find this isn’t sustainable for our wellbeing over the long run. Can a friend, family member or paid carer provide support for some mealtimes? Or perhaps they can give us a break in another way.


And if we need to rebuild our own relationship with food and mealtimes, let’s book some timeout for our own favourite meal. This could be ordering our favourite takeaway, asking a friend or family member to have us over for dinner, or even a night out (steady on!). When was the last time we did something like this? Time to pop it in the diary.


3. Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is a good way for us to manage ourselves and the person we care for.


One idea is to start by deciding on one day, lunchtime or dinner time in the week and let the person we care for know that we will not be able to eat with them on that day. We may want to prepare food in advance and leave it in the fridge. And if appropriate, find a friend or carer to step in, depending on our cared-for’s needs.


Boundaries could also look like ‘time I have available for lunch’ or ‘unacceptable language or behaviour’.


Boundaries are a really healthy thing to have in place, but can often get bent way out of place in caring roles. Pause and have a think about what is acceptable and how it could be woven (safely) back in, to support your mental health at mealtimes.


4. Don’t battle it out

Sometimes, the more we talk about it, the worse it can get. Remind ourselves that we can’t change the person we care for - but we can possibly change how we feel or respond. Remember we talked about the power in ‘yielding’ before?



Practical tips on encouraging those we care for to eat

Emotions aside, some days we just need to know that the person we care for has had enough calories and fluids. So what can we do?


Carers in the Mobilise community have been sharing their tips on getting more calories and fluid into our cared-fors’ diets.


1. Help with nutrition


Nutrition shakes

Many carers shared that they are using nutrition shakes to supplement meals. And some people find them easier to consume than three solid meals each day. It’s always advisable to speak with your GP before adopting new nutritional approaches.


Carers in the Mobilise community specifically mentioned Fortisip and Ensure nutritional shakes as meal supplements.


Fortisip comes as a milkshake, whereas Ensure shakes come in two forms. Some are milk-based and some are fruit juices which gives us the option to alternate. Saturo was mentioned as a good dairy-free meal replacement drink.


We can even ask for them on prescription, when we meet with the GP to discuss the options. They’re also available on Amazon, but we would still recommend chatting with your cared for’s GP before starting.


Prescribed powders

Fortisip and Ensure shakes are bottled but they also come in powdered forms, giving us options. Powdered forms are typically better value for money and we can choose to add more or less powder.


One carer in the Mobilise community also suggested Marvel, which is a type of powdered milk. We can add these to all drinks or dishes that require milk which adds lots of calorific value.


Probiotics

Different to classic nutrition, but also very important to health are probiotics - the friendly bacteria in our guts. We can easily add probiotics into any meal. They’re available from health shops and even Amazon. It’s recommended that we speak with a nutritionist to work out which probiotic would be best for the person we care for - there are heaps out there.


“I pop a probiotic into their porridge every morning.”

2. Help with calories


Shop high calorie foods

Illustration of man online food shopping.

Shopping high calorie foods is where the “work smart, not hard” practise comes in. By giving the person we care for high calorie dense foods in smaller portions, we can worry a little less about them being in a calorie deficit.


High calorie foods can be snuck into meals, to make each mouthful really count. Foods with higher calories include things like nut butters, rice and potatoes. So thickening a soup with potato, or adding some nut butter to a smoothie could help.


“I make sure that anything she does eat is high in calories so I add things like cream or cream cheese to dishes to increase calorie intake. She needs the most calories in a small volume.”
“I’ve always been giving mum a drink first, which has probably contributed to her being full up so can’t eat / or more than a spoonful!”

3. Help with fluids


Lollies

For those warmer, summer days (or just for fun!) some carers shared that they make tasty ice lollies as a way to get extra fluids in.


Soups and porridge

Soups are easy to consume and an easy way to slip both calories and extra fluid into the diet.

“My Dad is not keen on the shakes prescribed by the Dietician. So I asked for unflavored ones and added one to his porridge.”

Jelly drops

Jelly drops are also a fun way to add more fluids. They are vegan and sugar-free water sweets designed to boost hydration, with each tray providing 300ml of water!



4. Help with Vitamins

There are some simple ways carers are getting more vitamins into food;

  • Vitamin waters such as Oshee (for when we want to take a break from nutritional shakes)

  • Making homemade smoothies and adding in chia seeds, flax seeds or superfood powders


5. Help with getting creative at meal times

Reverting back to the basics doesn’t mean we have to make the same things over and over again. Have a look at our ‘Quick and easy recipe for carers’ blog, for some new inspiration.


“Frozen mashed potato is easy to prepare in the microwave and is a pleasant comfort food served in small portions, perhaps with grated cheese and peas.”
“For breakfast my mother has wholemeal toast and a cup of her favourite tea.”

6. Giving encouragement

This could be through acknowledging that you see them trying their best to eat. We all know that when we are sick, it is not easy when the body refuses to eat but we know we have to. Take a deep breath, being patient and empathetic will help us both. Let them know that we can see that they are trying, and that we are proud of them for it.



The impact of medication on diet

It’s also important to bear in mind the role of medication in affecting appetite and bodily functions such as bowel movements.


The time medication has to be taken, or if it’s with or without food, may determine what time of the day they should be eating. And in some cases what type of food is recommended.

If you need advice on meal times and medication, then consult with your GP or pharmacist for advice.



Diagnosis and appetite

It's also helpful to understand how a diagnosis may impact appetite, general behaviour or attitude. For example a dementia diagnosis can affect appetite in a number of ways including depression, tiredness or concentration. An autistic child may have some restrictive eating. And some conditions may make the person we care for more prone to choking. The NHS has a guide to supporting someone when they're choking, which may be helpful.


Our guide to condition specific support includes details on lots of charities and organisations who share valuable information and offer condition specific support.


Or we can simply use a search engine such as Google, to type say "dementia and appetite" or "Autism and Appetite", to find valuable 'condition specific' advice.


If we're supporting someone with an eating disorder, 'Beat' have lots of resources and support. And our carer support team are always available for you too.


What’s next?

Encouraging the person we care for to eat comes with many practical and emotional challenges. Remember that you are not alone in this. If you have any questions or tips you would like to share, join the Mobilise community of unpaid carers. For laughs, chats and support in our caring roles.


It is also worth checking out the NHS guide to feeding the person we care for which we may find useful.


You may also like

Meal planning for busy carers

Quick and easy recipes for carers

How to keep the person we care for cool and hydrated

The Mobilise guide to bladder and bowel incontinence