Caregivers’ Tips on Food & Nutrition

If you have been assigned to the care of an elderly parent who lives alone, you quickly recognize that one of your jobs is to help his or her diet remain healthy. It can be difficult knowing where to start when it comes to food and nutrition advice, but it’s important for caregivers not to feel burdened with this responsibility.

Ultimately, we all want to consume foods that are nutritious and delicious. But what does that mean? What’s important when it comes to nutrition?

If you have been tasked with the care of an older family member, or elderly parent who lives alone, a small list of tips might be in order. The goal is to make sure that you feel like you have enough information on the subject so that you can improve the quality of food your elder eats.

Tips that have worked well:

  • Consult your healthcare professional for all nutritional requirements or special diets!
  • Buy healthy foods that care recipient likes / needs, as well as what you like.  Know that stress can make a person crave sweets.  Keep healthy “sweets” around for when you must munch: bananas, fruits, carrots, yogurt, low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt, fruit popsicles & such.  Keep savories like saltines, low-fat crackers, popcorn (air poppers are great!), veggies, plain low- or fat-free yogurt or sour cream to make dips for your veggies or crackers, low- or fat-free cold cuts to have rolled up with pickles or in a low-fat tortilla / wrap with fresh greens, tomato, cucumbers, or grilled veggies & low- or fat-free dressing.  A small amount of pesto or other sauce is fine.  Low-fat or fat-free cheeses, grated or in blocks, have gotten much better.  Add them to salads & wraps, or make quesadillas.
  • Generally, eat healthy foods to get the strength & stamina that you both need.  If you’re not used to fresh fruits & vegetables, give them 2 weeks & you’ll grow to love them!  I did!  Sauces & dips (healthy ones with less fat) definitely make veggies & salads more exciting!  Browse through cookbooks online or at the bookstore for inspiration.
  • For care recipients who cannot eat full meals, try serving 1/2 – 1/3 of the meal instead, nicely arranged on a plate or flat bowl.  The idea is to provide nutritious food every 24 hours, so a “meal” can consist of 2 or 3 “mini-meals” – more like snacks served frequently.
  • Variety is the spice of life!  Having said that, if your loved one insists on peanut butter & jelly sandwiches every day & the doctor approves, then go for it!  We alternate “must eat” veggies with “love to eat” ones.
  • Cut fruits & veggies ahead of time & store them in air-tight containers or zip lock baggies to use as needed.
  • Plastic plates & sealed containers are great, & lighter, for weak hands & arms.  You will make it easier for the caree to handle foods & you’ll save your china from accidental drops!
  • Cutting food into bite-sized pieces or large chunks makes it easier for the caree to cut food & eat independently.  Spoons are often easier to use than forks, especially if the meal has sauce.
  • Bowls – bigger & “flat” – are great for meals.  When it’s hard to coordinate utensils, it helps to have a vertical edge against which to push & collect food onto a utensil.  Again, it encourages independence.
  • A tray with a non-slippery placemat is handy when eating in bed or on a recliner / arm chair.  We place a pillow under the tray to steady it & to keep it level.  We also place a washcloth / tea towel under the bowl & let it extend beyond the tray & onto the care recipient to catch any runaway drips or crumbs.
  • A full-sized plate is good for even smaller portions.  We found that pieces of small portions ended up falling off the small plate while trying to maneuver food with cutlery.
  • Thermal drink bottles keep cool drinks relatively cool longer, are sealed to avoid spills & are easy to grip if they are narrow, or have a handle or ring for your finger.  These are preferable to glasses, which can break (you don’t want to deal with a hidden piece of broken glass!) or spill.  We top up the drinks whenever they are about half gone to avoid running out.
  • Baggies or small plastic sealed containers keep snacks handy when you are not around.  Try nuts, crackers, dry fruit, granola bars (low fat), cookies, trailmix (see below), chunky dry cereal, raisins, grapes, berries, clementines, any sliced veggie or fruit, or bagels (small or big).
  • Trail mix can be made up of healthy ingredients that you like.  Be sure to balance the decadent items (which may be high in fat & sugar) with healthy ones.  Try dry chunky cereals as a base, then add dried fruits, nuts, seeds, some chocolate / carob / butterscotch / cinnamon chips or M&M’s.
  • Some sweets or savory favorites are fine with doctor’s approval.  We ration these in small quantities & try different ones every so often.
  • Mix, cut, prepare anything that can be done ahead of time.  This is especially useful if you need to leave an overnight snack for your loved one.  It will save you working in the kitchen late at night when all you want to see is your pillow!
  • Restock items before you run out.
  • Expect the unexpected!  Even if your caree ALWAYS has this or that at a certain time, one day, he or she may want something different or may not be up to eating it.  That’s ok!  Offer something else instead.
  • Rotate foods, as having a favorite item all the time may make him or her tire of it one day.  Offer an alternative every other day.  Even a PB & J sandwich can be made with different jams or breads each day.
  • Smaller portions for regular meals are often more appetizing.  It could also be that, due to condition or to meds, the caree may not be able to eat a “normal” portion any longer.  Smaller servings please the caree & avoids wasting food.  He or she can always have seconds!
  • Remember that meds or condition can also affect taste, making foods taste funny, bad or completely tasteless.  It is NOT your cooking!  Periodically, ask the caree what foods he or she dislikes or loves.
  • If going out to eat is impossible, bring the restaurant home!  Take-out is perfect for any occasion!  Make it special by using nice dishes or festive napkins.  Continue to celebrate special occasions & each other’s company!
  • Have a movie night, game night or any fun / enjoyable activity while you eat – as long as the caree is amenable & can be comfortable during such an activity.
  • When cooking family meals, you can separate a portion for your caree before you season the food if certain spices or condiments don’t appeal to him or her.  You can also keep backup favorites in case this isn’t possible.  For example, we keep cream of wheat & milk, dry fruit & nuts, sweet potato, canned garbanzos & beans, pasta & grains as backups.