How Can I Get Someone to Eat When She Says She's Not Hungry?

10 answers | Last updated: Oct 29, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I get someone to eat when she says she's not hungry?

Expert Answers

Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is 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.

The most important thing you can do is to make meals as pleasant an experience as possible. Too often, worry over someone's lack of appetite can make every meal a battle. It often plays out like this: You're insistent, she's defensive, it gets ugly -- and, in the end, she still doesn't eat.

Many health conditions can contribute to poor appetite. Here are some solutions that apply to many people:

Try offering the person smaller but more frequent meals, and serve smaller portions. Also let the person serve herself, if possible. Being served up large portions (or portions she sees as too large) can be an immediate turn-off. If you serve a very small portion and she finishes it, she can always have another.

Focus on providing nutrient density, rather than volume. A big bowl of spaghetti, for example, can overwhelm her. Besides, spaghetti contains few nutrients; it's mostly carbs. Consider instead serving much less pasta along with roasted chicken and vegetables cut up in small pieces. It's easier to eat and provides more nutrition in smaller amounts.

Appeal to a loss of taste caused by aging or disease with the use of stronger seasonings in cooking. Try adding garlic, onion, scallions, turmeric, cumin, curry, ginger, cinnamon, red or green pepper.

Serve beverages between meals rather than with meals. Many older people fill up on fluids at the table and don't have room for real food. If dehydration is a risk, liquids not served at mealtime should be offered throughout the day. Offer beverages that are higher in calories, such as fruit nectars, cocoa, yogurt drinks, and juices.

Serve the biggest meal at the time of day the person is most alert. That's when people tend to have the best appetite. For older people, this is often breakfast or late morning.

Make sure a stash of healthy snacks is readily available. This way, the person can grab something that requires no preparation and is easy to reach. For example, in the pantry or even in the room where she spends the most time, you might have meal bars, nut butter, trail mix and crackers, or whole-wheat fig bars. In the refrigerator, keep front-and-center options like yogurt, hummus and carrots or whole-wheat pita bread, or peeled hard-boiled eggs.

Rely on reminders. People with dementia, in particular, often forget to eat. So you can post a note on the refrigerator about what's inside. Pictures are especially good, as they also can stimulate appetite.

Serve nutritional supplement drinks. Options such as Boost, Ensure, or Sustacal help provide nutrients. Add ice cream to make it more like a shake, which can be drunk through a straw. Supplements also come in pudding form, which most people like.

Make sure the person gets some exercise during the day. Exercise is shown to improve appetite.

Community Answers

Oreoo answered...

excellent article, I use all of the above when my father with aliz. doesn't want to eat, it also helps to serve finger foods, chicken nuggets, fries, fishsticks, etc., things that are easy to handle and put in his mouth, doesn't have to use a spoon.

Lmah1 answered...

For my dad, I have learned that he may say he's not hungry, but if I place food in front of him, he will eat it. It may be just as simple as not asking them if they are hungry, but providing a meal anyway. I don't put too much on his plate. He can't eat as much as he used to. 1/2 a chicken breast and a tablespoon of mashed potatoes is plenty, especially since he has a peppermint or some other candy in his mouth almost all day long.

I have also learned that if I provide healthful snacks that he can just pick up and eat on his way past the table, that works too. If he is eating grapes, little finger-sized pieces of peanut butter sandwiches, apple pieces, and mixed nuts every time he walks past them, then he really doesn't need to sit down for a meal anyway. I try to make things that can be eaten as finger foods too. Just make sure they are high in nutritional value, so that if they don't eat much, they are still being "fed".

I also try to make sure he is getting some fiber. This seems to help prevent incidents of bowel incontinence. Hummus, rye or wheat bread, and fruit are all good for this. Just don't overdo it or it can go the other way.

I guess I just pretty much reiterated what was said in the original article. Just hang in there, don't get frustrated. Try and if it doesn't work, try again later. Just remember that you can't teach them to want to eat. It is not something they are trying to do. It does no good to get frustrated with them. They don't understand why you are frustrated. Just try to keep a smile on your face and hang in there...

A fellow caregiver answered...

My 92 yr old mother w/ alzheimers, who lives w/ us, frequently (and more and more) forgets if she's eaten, but will say : "I'm full so I guess I did eat"....She has her own jar of extra crunchy peanut butter and eats it right from the jar; also we always have assorted nuts in containers, fruit, yogurt....her favorite is ice cream...she can make a meal of that. I feel that at her age & in her condition, I am NOT going to nit-pick her about what's "healthy" or not. As long as she's getting enough calories and hydration. I do remind her to drink. She eats almost no meat and I've read older people do need more protein than they usually get. She will eat cheese & eggs. Her sweet tooth, which for all the years I've known her was non existant is now VERY powerful, which is so strange to me! But, again, I'm just not going to make her miserable "making" her eat "right" at this point in her life.

Sitters unlimited answered...

My mom eats like a bird also but she does love chocolate. So I make desserts like brownies using a recipe that replaces the butter with pureed black beans, using a healthier sugar than white sugar, whole wheat flour and the real kicker is that I add "green powder" to anything chocolate that I make for her.

Green powder is essentially powdered greens and the chocolate disguises the taste. It doesn't taste bad, but I know there's no way she's going to drink green milk, so I disguise it by putting it into chocolate pudding made with tofu instead of cornstarch, fudge made with coconut oil ... etc.

Willc answered...

My mom changed from a lifetime focus on eating nutritious, healthful meals with lots of whole grains to being an ice cream and potato chip junkie! Where was this woman when I was growing up? I subbed apple chips for her potato chips and she actually prefers the apple chips. Then I found out the apple chips were made in China, which made me uneasy about the manufacturing process and food quality. Fortunately, I was introduced to Seneca brand dried apple chips (grown and made in the USA) available through Small bags are perfect serving size because once opened the chips will absorb humidity and get chewy after a day. I think one bag is the equivalent of 1.5 medium apples, and a great source of fiber. Delicious and nutritious!

Dancinggirl answered...

Don't assume that she's not hungry. My mother says that she either just ate, or simply isn't hungry every night. I know that she didn't eat dinner, so I put it in front of her and she eats all of it. With dementia, her brain plays tricks on her.

Ca-claire answered...

Thank you for the great article! I have found that with my 92 and a half (the half is VERY important to him), If I eat at the same time as he does, and keep the conversation to a minimum, he will eat nearly everything on his plate. He gets small portions, but they are sufficient to keep him going. In between meals, we have almonds and caramels in a bowl by his recliner (favorite chair), and we give him Ensure between meals - sometimes he only drinks one a day (half in am, half in pm), sometimes 2 a day - depends on the day. When we take him out for meals - he has been in IL/AL for nearly 5 years now - we make sure we go eat the type of food he wants at his favorite restaurant for that type of food. This way, he eats extra.

For WillC and for the anonymous poster mentioning about sweets, the absolute last taste (taste buds in the mouth - sweet, sour, bitter, salty) to go is sweet. This may sound gross, but put a bottle of chocolate syrup on the table and call it gravy. They'll put it on their food and eat it right up. I think the salty taste is next to the last set of taste buds to go.

Joyanne answered...

These were great suggestions on how to get someone to eat. Thank all of you for your input, and thank for the wonderful service you are providing.

Sheep town granny answered...

I've tried everything she refuses to eat or only takes a tiny bite and I'm full now she only drinks and that isn't very much does anyone have any suggestions