Food can be great fun, a source of pleasure, and an escape. But when we’re responsible for what someone else eats (and we’re shattered from other caring responsibilities), food can lose its fun.
Dealing with allergies, sensory needs, personality changes, shrinking appetites, navigating tube-feeding, or other difficulties with eating, to name a few.
So if dinner time has lost its spark, how can we best navigate mealtime challenges?
To help, the Carer’s Kitchen includes practical tips to help us tackle these mealtimes challenges. Before we dive in, it may be helpful to remind ourselves:
We’ve also broken the guide up, so we can skip straight to our biggest mealtime challenge:
Why mealtimes can be challenging, when we’re caring
When we’re looking after a family member or friend, there are a number of things that can make mealtimes more stressful. These might include:
Exhaustion. We’re too tired to cook. Put simply, we’re already shattered from other caring responsibilities, perhaps we also work or have our own immediate family to look after too.
Balancing needs. Perhaps we have our own allergies, but the person we care for needs to consume a number of calories or has sensory needs with food. Maybe they have emotional challenges with food. It can be hard to balance everyone’s needs.
Resentment - putting our own needs aside. Our own mealtime preferences may not get a look in, and on a bad day, this may make us feel a bit resentful.
“I care for three people with dietary needs, some are sensory and some are gastro issues and allergies. So it’s just easier to eat what they eat. What I’d love to do is experiment with new plant based recipes, but in reality there just isn’t time or energy for it.”
Time available. The person we look after may need a lot of time and encouragement to eat their meals. Or they may forget to eat or struggle to eat the necessary calories.
Emotional battles. From hiding “naughty food” to food refusal, there are often emotional battles around food. Food can also be a way of controlling a relationship.
Hospital stays and care homes. The worry of how we nutritionally support someone during their stay - or support them with food intolerances. Plus the practicality of things, if we find ourselves cooking and taking meals into them during visiting hours.
Overwhelming responsibility. When we feel responsible for someone else's health, we may also feel a lot of pressure to get this part of our care work ‘right’.
The cost of food. When we’re caring for someone, we may find ourselves on a lower income. Many of us reduce our work hours or leave our jobs entirely. Plus, the person we care for, may no longer be working. This, coupled with rising food costs, can make things very challenging.
Worsening health conditions. The person we care for might lose the ability to feed themselves. This might be sudden, or develop over time. Either way, we may be grieving for the loss of their independence.
Complicated medication schedules. Tablets with food, tablets on empty stomachs and so on!
From how to feed ourselves healthily around our own time constraints and exhaustion to supporting the person we care for to eat, there’s a lot that may be on our minds.
Why food can be an emotional topic
We know that food is physically important to keep us well, but there can be a lot of complicated and difficult emotions attached to the topic.
During times of high stress, some of us might turn to food as a way of suppressing or soothing hard-to-handle emotions. Then we feel guilty and upset afterwards. We all deserve to eat the foods we love, of course, but this can affect our health if we’re regularly ignoring our feelings and bingeing on high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods instead.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of us feel a lot of anxiety around food. Distressing emotions might cause us to stop eating the food we need and enjoy as a way of coping when things feel out of our control.
Either way, researchers believe that our relationship with food can give us a window into our general mental wellbeing.
A study found that people who experienced extreme guilt or stress around food choices were more likely to have feelings of low self-esteem, poor emotional control and a more negative mindset. Plus, they had a higher tendency to ruminate on their problems in isolation.
As a carer, there can be a lot of pressure to have it all under control in the kitchen. With so much aspirational food content on social media, lots of us talk about our best not being enough and feeling that we need to always be ‘doing better’ in this area.
And in some cases, we may be feeling distress around the person we care for and their changing eating habits. Whether that’s a physical danger with eating (e.g. an issue with swallowing) or a change in their ability to feed themselves.
There can be fractures in the carer relationship too if the person we care for uses food as a way of controlling us. Food refusal can be very scary and upsetting. And the person we care for may abuse this emotional response as a way of manipulating our behaviours and freedoms.
Or, we may just feel rushed off our feet and overwhelmed by the number of mouths to feed at home. Rest assured that this is normal - it’s a lot on top of everything else we need to manage.
“It’s a challenge to get an evening meal ready for four adults, with two people that work, and don't get home till 5.45 and 6pm. But also timing it so that the person being cared for has eaten their meal before carers arrive at 6.30pm to put them to bed.”
Common mealtime challenges and tips to overcome them
Carers in the Mobilise Community have shared some of their most common mealtime and food-related challenges, and their tips for improving things.
1. Time spent planning, prepping, and cooking
The biggest challenge for us can be having the time to cook healthy meals or meals that meet dietary requirements. As much as we love eating food, we might not love the process if we’re busy and simply don’t have the time we’d like to devote to it.
💡 Carer’s top tips :
Get organised with meal planning for the week ahead: Check out our meal planning guide for inspiration.
Bulk cooking: Make one big dish and portion it out to create grab-and-go meals for later. Check out the YouTube channel Chef Jack Ovens for tasty recipe inspiration.
Trying ‘one pot’ dishes: It means lots less washing up! Gordon Ramsay has lots of easy-to-cook ideas.
Don’t make everything from scratch: Cut corners where we can like buying pre-chopped frozen veggies, bagged salads and fresh soups.
Go for rapid recipes: See our guide to quick and easy recipes for tips.
‘Meals on Wheels’: The person we care for may be eligible for healthy food delivery services if we’re struggling and need support.
'Virtual cooking recipes for male carers': Check out the "Look Who's Cooking" Cookbook
“Frozen jacket potatoes are a good ‘ready meal’. Surprisingly good and quick. My mum loves just loads of butter but it's very easy to serve alongside 'anything'.”
2. Time taken over meals
Some health conditions, like dementia, can make it difficult for a person to concentrate on eating a meal at a table. We may spend a lot of time encouraging them to eat. Pulling their focus towards the food. Putting utensils back into their hands, or reminding them to chew and swallow.
Understandably, this can put a lot of physical and emotional stress on us. When someone loses the ability to feed themselves, the person we care for may feel grief or embarrassment and may direct their anger and irritation at us too. There are lots of emotions tied into our ability to feed ourselves, and if we’re no longer able to, it can be devastating.
Remember that refusing food is rarely a reflection on our caring (or our cooking!) - it can also be changes to appetite and personality following a new diagnosis. This doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, of course.
Our mental health matters too. When we feel ourselves getting overwhelmed with frustration or upset at mealtimes, we may need to take a moment of micro-respite. There are lots of small actions we can do for relief, like stepping into another room and taking five calming breaths.
Or we could excuse ourselves from the dinner table and ‘mind dump’ our frustrated thoughts. Where it is safe to do so, some of our carers said that leaving the room can actually encourage the person to eat, as they felt less pressure.
“She kept saying she was full after only a few bites but I learned not to encourage her to eat. I would just leave it in front of her and she would start again when she thought I was not looking.”
If we find we’re constantly at boiling point though, it may be a sign we need to reach out for support to take the pressure off - whether that’s from friends and family, or with our local carer support team. There are lots we can do to deal with stress and resentment, like talking through our worries about mealtimes to a trained professional.
Our local carer’s centre may be able to offer advice and help too.
3. Keeping someone healthy and hydrated
Mealtimes can be a struggle if the person we care for refuses food or drink. We may need practical solutions for upping their calories and water intake, or some support on dealing with the psychological stress of mealtime battles.
From high-calorie food recommendations to advice on setting boundaries, we have a comprehensive guide on how to encourage someone to eat. These tips can be really helpful if we’re facing it alone.
“With small appetites, use full fat milk and yoghurts to help increase calories. You can also add dried milk to soups, drinks, casseroles… even milk!”
4. Tips for feeding the person we care for, while they’re in hospital
Tell the nurses if the person you care for is struggling or refusing to eat the food that is on offer. The staff may be able to provide a more preferable meal or one that’s tailored to their dietary needs. This isn’t always possible though, as many hospitals across the country are short-staffed.
If we’re thinking of bringing our own meals into the hospital, cold-cooked recipes like salads, frittatas, sandwiches and poke bowls can be good options that won’t spoil on the journey. Wrapped fresh fruit, pre-wrapped cakes, chocolates and healthy snacks like yogurts can also give some sustenance between meals.
“I kept a ton of cakes and biscuits and a packet of crisps and chocolate/sweets on the table next to mum so that even if she didn't eat a lot of her meals she would snack when she felt like it.”
Some hospitals might have strict rules on the food we can bring into the ward. This is to prevent the risk of infection, food borne illnesses and unwanted interaction with prescribed medication. Always check with the ward staff as to what you’re able to bring into the hospital, as there may be specific rules, especially around things like nuts that can cause allergies for others.
If the person feels well enough, we could take them out to a local cafe (there’s usually one in the hospital) for a hot meal of their choice. The ward staff may also have small snacks available, which can provide some sustenance between missed meals. Meal replacement drinks like Huel and Ensure can be handy for making sure they’re hitting their daily protein, vitamin and mineral requirements.
People who feel unwell or have a drip may need encouragement or physical help to eat. If the hospital is busy, there may not always be someone available to help with every meal. Some NHS hospitals may have adopted a ‘red tray’ system. This is where a red tray or beaker is used on the wards to help staff identify which patients need extra attention when eating.
Patients with these red trays will be given encouragement and assistance with eating, extra time to eat, and will have what they eat recorded on a chart. We should speak to staff to see if this is in use locally, as availability depends on each hospital and trust.
Or, we could plan our visits around mealtimes so we can help with the physical aspects of feeding. It might be helpful to set up a WhatsApp chat with friends or family, to coordinate efforts and share the load.
Feeding someone in hospital
Hospital stays can be physically and emotionally exhausting. An unexpected health emergency can turn our world upside down, and we may not be on top of things as usual.
If the house is messy, or our plans to cook from scratch have gone out the window, that’s OK. We might just be surviving on whatever we can find at the back of the kitchen cupboards right now.
If we’re working, telling our employer can be a helpful step. Our work may have short-term carers’ or dependents’ leave available. Or we may also be able to negotiate flexible or remote working, depending on the type of job we do.
The person we care for should be provided with a healthy balanced diet of three meals per day at the hospital. However, meeting dietary needs is difficult, especially where allergies and intolerances are involved. The food in the hospital may also not be to everyone’s taste.
5. Feeding ourselves when the person we care for is in hospital
Hospital stays can be stressful, and food may be the last thing on our minds. Looking after ourselves is really important when we may be feeling run down with stress and the emotional impact of a loved one in hospital.
Tips for looking after ourselves while someone is in the hospital
Raid the freezer: Ditch the pressure to cook everything from scratch and load up the freezer with easy-to-defrost options. We can still eat healthily with frozen veggies, fishcakes, falafel, and lean cuts of meat.
Utilise the slow cooker: We can slow-cook a delicious hot meal while we’re on our visits.
Ask friends and family to help: Could someone we know drop off some hot meals to keep us going?
Cook once, eat twice: Make double the portion to cover two or three days of meals.
Opt for smaller protein: Prawns, chopped chicken and tofu are quick to cook in a quick stir fry. Bigger cuts of meat can take more time to heat up.
6. Specialist help with feeding
We may need to physically feed the person we care for, or they may need special equipment.
This could be because they’re at risk of choking, experiencing severe reflux, have trouble gripping cutlery, or are at risk of food going into their airway. It can be a challenge at first but will get easier with time.
These situations can feel like a huge responsibility and feel overwhelming at the start. It can be helpful to hear from other carers who have been doing it for a while.
“I couldn’t believe I was being asked to pop a tube up my child’s nose and into her stomach - avoiding her lungs. The thought made me physically sick - ‘nurse’ is the last career I would have been any good at. But astonishingly, with support, I was able to learn how to do it, overcome my fears and help my child to eat. This allowed us to leave the hospital. I feel emotional thinking back to those earlier days and so proud of myself too.”
Carers' top tips for feeding at home
Get support with tube feeding: Your healthcare team should help with understanding the procedure for placing the tube, as well as training to get started. The charity Living With Tube Feeding has lots of additional advice and support on its website.
Get an OT assessment: Occupational therapy can help with practical tasks like feeding. It’s available for people with a physical disability, who are getting older, who have mental health issues or who are recovering from illness. Visit your local council website to book and arrange an assessment.
Talk to our local Age UK: The charity’s advice line (open on 8am to 7pm, every day of the year) can give specialist advice on age-related eating issues. We can contact them on 0800 678 1602.
“If in doubt get an Occupational Therapist to do an ‘activities of daily living’ assessment as they may be able to make adaptations to help the looked after person keep some level of independence.”
7. Dealing with special diets
The person we care for may have allergies or difficulties that affect what they can eat. Common allergies like gluten, nuts, dairy and seafood can make mealtimes more complicated. Some people experience sensory issues with food too.
Cooking for food allergies and intolerances
It’s often not enough to simply remove the trigger food from the plate. Even tiny traces of allergens can cause reactions, so we need to be careful when we’re preparing food for people with allergies. We can make life easier for ourselves by:
Using substitutions: Many carers find switching the whole household to substitutes like gluten-free bread and dairy-free butter can give peace of mind.
Cleaning thoroughly: Before cutting or chopping, clean all work surfaces and equipment thoroughly using hot, soapy water.
Building some fail-safe recipes: The charity Allergy UK has recipes for a variety of specialist and common dietary restrictions.
Updating our social feeds: Try following allergy-specific food blogs and Instagrammers for mealtime inspiration. For example, Deliciously Ella (@deliciouslyella) shares lots of tasty dairy and gluten-free recipes.
Cooking for Diabetes
If we’re cooking for someone with diabetes, we’ll need to opt for healthy foods that help control blood sugar. BBC Good Food has a whole list of diabetes-friendly recipes that can be useful.
Five top tips tips to ensuring a diabetes-friendly meal:
1. Consider foods that have a low glycemic index (see a helpful list here), as they help control blood sugar levels. Including leafy greens, cauliflower, or chickpeas. Avoiding foods like white bread, sugary cereals, and processed snacks.
2. Substitute carbs like rice with alternatives. This can be a tricky one, particularly if rice is a big part of our cultural dish. Perhaps we can pick days where we replace white rice with brown rice or use half white, half brown - before making the full transition.
"Without the carbs it takes A LOT to fill our daughter up. But carbs swaps we use include, cauliflower rice (cauliflower blitzed in the blender, so it looks like rice) then panfried with olive oil and (depending on the recipe) lemon juice or herbs or spices. Instead of beans (in a chilli) we use chunks of aubergine to give texture. Courgetti instead of spaghetti. Use a spiralizer to create." - Carer from our community
3. Choose lean protein sources like skinless poultry, fish, tofu, beans, and lentils in our meals. This helps maintain steady blood sugar levels and keeps us feeling full for longer periods.
4. Don't be afraid of healthy fats - they're an essential part of a balanced diet. Opt for sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These fats aid in better blood sugar regulation and improve overall heart health.
5. Meal preparation! It's something our future selves most likely will thank us for. It also reduces the need for us to opt for more processed, sugary foods when we have very little time on our hands.
Cooking for sensory issues
Many children and adults with sensory sensitivities have eating and drinking difficulties. This is a common challenge for autistic people. They may find eating unpleasant because of the overwhelming sensory experience of certain tastes and textures. In some cases, they may not also have the ability to communicate this with us.
The National Autistic Society has a very comprehensive guide on eating, with tips on helping someone with sensory challenges to meet all their nutritional needs.
Cooking for reluctant eaters
If we’re caring for someone that just isn’t into their food, we could try:
Getting them involved in the cooking
Make ‘healthy’ versions of junk food
Sneaking veggies into sauces and soups
Making sure they take a multivitamin to avoid deficiencies
8. Keeping the cost of cooking down
The prices of everyday foods like bread, cereal and milk are rising, making household bills more expensive. We may need to take on extra work, which cuts down our time to cook or get more creative at making our money or food go further.
From saving money on energy-efficient appliances to making our meals go further, our guide to saving money on the weekly shop can help with practical tips.
9. Cooking in someone else’s kitchen
Cooking in someone else’s kitchen can be stressful. From how they organise their cupboards to different acceptable levels of hygiene, or which appliances they have available.
If we prefer cooking in our own space, it can be helpful to do all the food prep at home. That way, we just need to quickly heat the food up on our visit. We might want to bring our own cooking utensils and gadgets too, like blenders or air fryers, that make life easier.
It’s not easy, but where possible, we should try to resist controlling everything in their kitchen. Although it may not be to our taste (or logic!), a bit of organised chaos might be how the person we care for likes to live.
That said, we should do what we can to minimise stress - whether that’s having our own designated ‘cupboard of calm’ at their house, or sticking our headphones on and zoning out while we cook.
10. Making healthy meals for ourselves when we're tired
When we’re physically exhausted, the last thing we may feel like doing is making a meal from scratch. It pays to eat well if we can, though. Food fuels the body, and when we’re not getting the nutrients we need, greater tiredness and fatigue are likely to follow.
Go for 20-minute (or less) recipes: We like Bosh, Pinch of Nom and Jamie Oliver’s speedy recipes. Other carers have also shared their favourite simple recipes.
Get creative with leftovers: Roast your extra veggies and chuck them into a pasta sauce, or use up leftover chicken in a lunchtime sandwich.
Stock up on quick-cooking wholegrain: Try Quinoa and couscous for a healthy and filling side dish.
Have healthy grab-and-go snacks on hand: Stock up on fresh fruits, dried fruit and nut mix, dark chocolate and crackers and cottage cheese.
Simplify breakfast: Make overnight oats that can be chucked in the fridge and eaten throughout the week, or reach for whole grain toast and nut butter.
Get others to help: Could someone in your carer circle do the weekly shop and stock your fridge?
Have some ‘emergency’ pre-cooked healthy meals in the freezer: Ready for those days when we have no energy.
“Don’t forget to cook nice things that you like too. It’s so easy to concentrate on the person you care for and their specific dietary needs that you forget yourself. I’ve sat down to a plate of crackers more times than I want to admit!”
A final thought
In a nutshell, finding mealtimes challenging isn’t uncommon when we’re looking after a family member or friend at all. We hope you’re able to take some carers’ tips away to make mealtimes a little less stressful.
You can always bookmark this page if you’d like to pop back in the future, and don’t forget to share your own kitchen tips over in the Mobilise Community - there’s a bunch of us there already!