Tips to Encourage a Healthy Appetite in Seniors

Many times over the years I have been in a position to give care to a senior parent, uncle, or friend. One of the challenges is mealtime. Often the elderly do not wish to cooperate when it comes to meals. Perhaps they are on a restricted diet and don’t particularly like it. Sometimes they may suffer from an illness which decreases their wish to eat. And many times medications may cause a lack of appetite. But a healthy diet is vital to the continued health, or healing of everyone, especially the elderly.

My most difficult challenge was my mother. A combination of medications reduced her appetite. We then had to contend with her fear of ‘getting fat’. At almost eighty, we thought this fear was quite silly, but we kept the thought to ourselves. Mom was barely a hundred pounds and arguing with her about her weight was something we had learned not to do as children. But that could be a whole other article.

Suffice it to say I had to figure out how to get her to eat enough to keep up her health, get the added nutrients she needed and, and satisfy a constantly fluctuating appetite.

Here are some of the things I discovered that helped.

1. Set the table and get them there. Many times in the midst of busy schedules with children, work, and friends, we forget the niceties of meeting together to share a meal. I caught myself taking mom’s meals to her in her room or in her chair while we ran around taking care of some errand. Once I realized what I was doing, which did not take long by the way, I made a change. I set the table and we had family meals, even if I was the only family member home with her. For those times when it was just the two of us, I laid a TV tray with a small cloth, china, napkins and a flower or treat. Together we would have a leisurely meal and talk. Believe it or not, she would eat almost everything on her plate. Of course, she would often, good-naturedly complain that I was making her fat, but we just ignored those comments in our house.

2. Fix favorite dishes. Often our elderly become almost child-like in their ideas and demands. Mother was no exception. When I noticed she was having a particularly frustrating day I planned meals that included some of her favorite foods. Mom was German and loved the breads and sausages that were not really good for her, but after checking with her doctor of course, I learned that she could have these in small quantities. Fortunately she also loved many fruits, vegetables, and other good-for-her foods. Including some of these in a meal often enticed her to clear her plate. Dessert, offered as a reward for eating everything, usually did the job and got her eating.

3.Portion Control. Serve small portions. I repeat this. SERVE SMALL PORTIONS. As we grow older our appetites diminish. This is a natural occurrence and one that should be considered. With my mom, a petite woman, a teaspoon of fruit and vegetables, three to four ounces of meat, and a quarter cup of a starch like potato, rice, or pasta was more than enough and just enough to allow her to clear her plate. Remember, you can always offer seconds, but most elderly people grew up in a time when wasting food was sinful. People were starving in some remote land, they were usually told by well-meaning parents. Don’t overwhelm your senior with a large plate full of food.

4. Use Smaller dishes. In conjunction with portion control, try using smaller dishes than you normally use at a meal. A smaller plate gives the illusion that there is more food than there really is. This may sound contrary, but mom usually would be quite proud of clearing her plate, just like we did.

While these tips may not be what you expected, they were learned through trial and error and really did make a difference in how much, what, and when we were able to get mom to eat. I hope you will consider rethinking how you feed your charge and that these tips will, if nothing else, cause you to take a look at how you interact with your loved one at mealtime.