What Can I Feed an Older Relative Who Has Difficulty Swallowing?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What can I feed an older relative who has difficulty swallowing?

Expert Answer

Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor and the director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet.

Food preparation is important to consider when you have a relative who has difficulty swallowing. Offering a wide variety of foods cooked and served so that chewing and swallowing will be easier can make all the difference in the person's overall nutrition and health.

Many factors can contribute to difficulty swallowing, but it's more common in older adults because of weakened musculature, neurological damage (usually caused by stroke, Parkinson's, or advanced Alzheimer's), gastrointestinal disorders, or cancer treatments.

What to try:

  • Make sure food that's offered is soft to begin with (items like cooked lentils, rice pudding, casserole).

  • Try soup, especially nutrient-dense soups, such as vegetable-chicken, split pea, or other bean-based soups.

  • Cut the food into very small pieces.

  • Cook vegetables and meats to tenderness.

  • Pour gravy or sauce on foods (such as vegetables and pasta) to make them softer.

  • Serve nutritional supplement drinks (Boost, Ensure, Sustacal). Add ice cream to make a shake, or serve the supplement in pudding form.