How do I help my mother eat better?

10 answers | Last updated: Nov 06, 2016
Ankeinsf asked...

I'm taking care of my mother after she broke her pelvis. She's on bed rest and can't cook or clean. We eat really differently. Should I cook the foods she's used to and likes (high salt and fat, Wonder bread, lots of processed foods, like canned soup and lunch meat) or make her the nutritious food I like to eat? (She usually makes fun of the way I eat.)

Expert Answers

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

Although I share your concerns about your mother's diet--she's lucky to have you to help her--what's immediately more important is helping her recover her function and mobility. In particular, I'm wondering about her being on bedrest. Unless the pelvis is very unstable (in which case the surgeons usually operate to make it stable), most orthopedic surgeons and rehabilitation doctors recommend that the injured person start moving around as soon as possible. Older people lose strength quickly when they stay in bed. Mobilizing and physical therapy should be done carefully, of course, and with supervision, in order to prevent falls.

It's possible she's reluctant to move because people also have a lot of pain after a pelvic fracture. It might be worthwhile double-checking both her pain management and mobility plans with your mother's doctors.

Although a nutritious diet is always a good idea, in the short-term it probably won't make a huge difference to her recovery. This is assuming that your mother doesn't have a medical problem that's highly diet-sensitive. For example, congestive heart failure and chronic liver disease are two diseases for which reducing ones salt intake can improve symptoms over just a few days. Diabetes can also be affected short-term by ones diet.

One risk of focusing too much on her diet is that your good intentions might create tension between the two of you. Instead of lecturing or just flat-out changing her meals, try to understand what it is that keeps her eating her less-healthy diet. For example:

  • Is she unconvinced that there's a connection between nutrition and health?
  • Is she resistant to your input because it's a control issue? Older family members sometimes want to be left alone about their eating habits in order to feel respected.
  • Does she feel like she doesn't have time or energy to cook better meals from scratch?
  • Is she under the impression that healthy food is too expensive?
  • Or maybe she finds that low-salt foods just taste too bland?

If you can hear each others concerns and opinions respectfully, you might find her less resistant to little starter steps -- fresh apple slices for a snack, a green salad with her canned dinner, or adding lemon to brighten the flavor of a low-sodium soup. With your mother's permission, you could also bring up your concerns regarding her diet to her primary care provider.

Community Answers

Jonce123 answered...

I have had the same issue with my mother; in spite of what the doctor tells her about salty foods, etc., she still eats them. When I'm gone during the day, she fills up on things like potato chips; when I get home and fix dinner, she claims not to have an appetite; after I go to bed, she sneaks things like cookies.

Certainly, not my idea of "sensible eating", but, hey, she'll be 96 in a few months, so even though it doesn't seem healthy.......

I'm just more cognizant of keeping things like ice-cream cups, pudding, individual fruit cups, applesauce, fruited jello, etc. available--anything to keep her nutrition up and help with the common problem in the elderly of dehydration.

Sobeitfornow answered...

When people reach a certain age let them eat whatever they want to eat. It is difficult enough having to deal with an illness or injury without losing what you love to eat as well. Make things as normal as they were for her before she had the injury. My mom and dad love their junk foods and they are in their 80's and take insulin. I say let them have whatever makes them happy. Just see if you can introduce more dairy into her diet for the calcium; however there are supplements for that as well.

You will need to take care of yourself too and I know it is more difficult to make 2 different meals, but perhaps you can both compromise a little. Good luck and tell you mom hello from Texas and good wishes for a speedy and thorough recovery.


Dusty1 answered...

My mother moved into my home recently, is bed-bound, 90 years of age. I eat pretty healthy - lots of fresh home grown fruits, whole grains, etc.

My mom loves snack foods, soda's, candy bars, what some of us consider "junk foods". She does like whole grain breads.

Eating habits are usually a lifelong habit and hard to change.

I am not about to change her eating habits now. I do add in healthful things like melon, home grown tomatoes, scrambled eggs. She still gets her snack foods and soda's and she has healthful things also. Things like melons - cantaloupe and watermelon's also add to the liquid part of her diet so she does not get dehydrated. She is stubborn and has been eating and drinking less and less, as I think most oldsters eat less as time goes by.

I am not about to change her eating habits at this time in her life, and also feel that she's lived this long and whatever she enjoys in the food department - I say let her have it!!!

A fellow caregiver answered...

My father is 90 and eats whatever he likes, which includes cornflakes for breakfast, pasta,cheese, & sausages for dinner, and lots of ice cream and cake. He is thin, so he doesn't have the problems that come with obesity, but has marginally high cholesterol. The doctor wants to change his diet and put him on medication, but I know it would never work. His memory is too far gone for him to remember to eat better. I say, let him enjoy his food.

Living with dementia answered...

I also worry about the way my 86 yr old mother eats, she loves sweets and fruit. That is all she wants but I managed to get her to eat 3 solid meals a day with a morning,evening and bedtime snack that includes fruit,cheese, yogart and 1 sweet thing like cake or ice cream a day. Alot of people tell me too, let her eat what she wants because she is 86 and so what at that point in life what she eats.She could and would eat a whole cherry pie in 1 day! A nurse that works with dementia patients (yes she has dementia and lives with me now), says the elderly loose their taste senses and sweets are about the only thing they can taste thats why they want sweets alot. I have put a gate up to the kitchen so she can't help herself to whatever whenever now and it has helped me to make sure she is not just snacking and now she is eating her meals and she is cleaning the plate!!! I say let there be moderation! Thanks for all your comments they have helped.

Cry answered...

My mom has Alz and she always says she is not hungry she has lost alot of weight but also had cancer and went through radiation which I consider has affected her appetite. I have been buying her the Ensure drinks and they make vitamin bars with protein and she really enjoys them and it seems that is all she want to eat and drink is the sweet stuff. She has gained 3 pounds in a month but I worry about her sugar being to high now. She goes back to the doctor Friday and I have an appt so my daughter is taking her. I am going to have them check her sugar because now I am worried she is having to much sugar. I have read alot about this terrible disease and they say sweet stuff is what they like the best. My mom is only 70 and I have seen her go down really bad in the past few months and that is with changing her meds, adding meds and it just dont seem to help. I have lost my best friend my mother but I will always be here for her as long as I can take care of her on my own. God Bless us all that have to deal with terrible disease.

V.u. m. rao answered...

Let old people eat whatever they want. Treat them kindly and give them some happiness by allowing them to eat what they like. Ofcouse tell them not to eat too much quantity of anything and every thing as their health is important to all.

Darkdays answered...

I worry about my Dad not eating enough, he is skin and bones and like one time I left his lunch, thinking, if I give him a little, he'll beg for more, but instead of that, he only ate 14 cup of soup instead of 1/2 cup. It pains me to see how thin he is but my friends tell me that is a normal part of aging and his body is getting ready to die. (doesn't make me feel much better though.) HIs caretakers keep buying him grapefruit juice which he begs for but it is bad for him as it gives him gout. he craves the foods he shouldn't have. The ensure just fills him up so he doesn't eat his normal meals.

Somebody's daughter answered...

to cry: be very sure to get a good diagnosis to differentiate between (cancer treatment related) 'chemo-fog' which will improve over time and true dementia. fwiw, eating is social. I prepare myself a beautiful plate - lots of color, presentation as nice as i can make it, and put it on the table in my place where mom can see it while i get her meal. 'what's that?' "here, see what you think" ;) (cheat: I always try to include one food she enjoys, whether it's the protein, the fruit, or the veggie, or the type of grain on my plate). kick up the spicing a bit more than she used to take and often she decides to have exactly what i am eating. If not, often she will 'share' a bite or small portion of something healthy and put some of her own food away for "later, when she is hungry" Low salt diet compensated for small amt lemon juice and Mrs. Dash. also, having friends or family join in a meal that looks colorful and tasty encourages her to choose the good stuff everyone else is getting!