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How to Feed Someone Having Difficulty Swallowing

difficulty swallowing

We grow up thinking chicken soup will make us well, but when a person has trouble swallowing, the simple act of eating or drinking can become dangerous. Difficulty swallowing is known medically as dysphagia. It can cause not just choking, but also aspiration pneumonia when liquids or food particles slide down the windpipe and infect the lungs.

Avoiding these dangers and making sure a loved one who has difficulty swallowing when eating can be a challenge, but there are some techniques you can use to make it easier and more enjoyable.

difficulty swallowing help

Design the right environment. 

Plan ahead for success with someone who has difficulty swallowing when eating. Turn off the television and focus on the meal. Make sure your loved one is sitting upright. Allow ample time for chewing and complete swallowing. Give your loved one your full attention. Make eye contact, and open and close your mouth when they are supposed to bite or take their next sip. Be especially alert for signs that your loved one may be choking or retaining food in their mouth.

difficulty swallowing foods

Foods to eat when having difficulty swallowing.

Before your loved one became ill, they had foods and flavor profiles they loved. Now that your loved one’s options are more limited, it can be useful to find new ways to enjoy the flavors they like and perhaps find new flavors to try. Look for foods with thicker gravy or sauce. The moisture helps make swallowing easier.

Some foods to eat when difficulty swallowing is affecting nutrition include:

  • Yogurts, custards, and puddings
  • Pureed fruits
  • Pureed bread
  • Pureed meats
  • Pureed vegetables
  • Pureed soup

You can increase calories in these foods by adding butter, milk, cream, sour cream, honey, or jelly. To increase protein, use milk instead of water in recipes and make smoothies with yogurt or peanut butter. Avoid dry foods particularly those with crumbs such as non-pureed bread, pastries, non-pureed meats or beans. Be extra careful with foods that have a mix of textures.

difficulty swallowing thickener

Use thickening agents. 

While many preferred foods can be pureed or chopped to small pieces for someone who has difficulty swallowing when eating, liquids can be a special challenge. Thicker liquids move more slowly down the throat which helps avoid aspiration. For things like soup, you can use powdered mashed potatoes, gelatin, or tapioca as a natural thickening agent.

But for beverages, commercial thickening agents like Thick-It and ThickenUp are easier to use. These brands have different flavors and textures, so you may need to try a few before you find one your loved one likes. Work with your loved one’s healthcare team to determine what level of thickness is best for your loved one.

Keep a food journal so you remember what foods and recipes work well. It also helps keep track of how much your loved one ate at each meal. Small frequent meals are usually easier than just a couple big meals each day.

Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care provides care and support to individuals and families facing serious and terminal illness. Please call 1-888-564-3405 to learn more about the services we provide and visit our website for more caregiver resources.


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