Patient Referral

How to Feed Someone Having Difficulty Swallowing

A woman feeding her ailing husband

For elderly people experiencing swallowing difficulties, medically referred to as dysphagia, it’s important to choose foods that are easy to swallow. These foods minimize the risk of not only choking, but also aspiration pneumonia, when liquids or food particles slide down the windpipe and infect the lungs. Here are recommended foods for people who have difficulty swallowing.

1. Pureed foods.

Seniors with dysphagia commonly rely on pureed fruits, vegetables, and meat as part of their daily meals. These foods are soft and finely mashed, making them easier to swallow and digest. Pureed food is a great option since it provides essential nutrients while minimizing the risk of choking or discomfort during swallowing.

A woman pureeing food

2. Soft fruits and vegetables.

Soft fruits and vegetables are easier to chew and require less effort to swallow, reducing the risk of choking or discomfort. Some soft fruits and vegetables suitable for seniors with swallowing problems including bananas, avocados, cooked carrots, and sweet potatoes. These foods can also be prepared in different ways to suit preferences and dietary needs.

3. Dairy products.

Dairy products offer a range of nutritious options for seniors with dysphagia. However, it’s crucial to choose items that are easy to swallow and won’t pose a choking hazard. Choose foods like yogurt, pudding, milkshakes, and smoothies. Soft cheeses like cottage cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta can be easier to swallow compared to hard cheeses. Sour cream can be used as a topping for various dishes.

4. Grains.

Soft and easily digestible grains offer an excellent means of incorporating essential nutrients and fiber into a senior’s diet. Some suitable choices include creamy hot cereals like oatmeal, porridge or cream of wheat. Softened cereals such as cornflakes or rice cereals that soften quickly in milk are another good option. Many seniors with trouble swallowing also enjoy soft bread products that can be easily moistened with gravy, broth, or sauce. Soft waffles or pancakes with applesauce or syrup can also be easy to swallow, as well as soft pasta with a smooth sauce like marinara or alfredo.

5. Desserts.

There are plenty of easy to swallow dessert foods for seniors who have difficulty swallowing. Minimize the risk of choking or discomfort by choosing sweets like pudding, jello, smoothies, ice cream, mousse, custard, or sorbet. These options not only satisfy cravings but also provide a safe and enjoyable eating experience.

Thickening agents for dysphagia.

While many preferred foods can be pureed or chopped to make them easier to swallow, liquids can be a special challenge. Thicker liquids move more slowly down the throat, which helps avoid aspiration. For things like soup, some natural thickening agents for dysphagia include:

  • Powdered mashed potatoes
  • Gelatin
  • Tapioca
  • Flour
  • Cream

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.

Commercial thickening agent

How to increase calories and protein.

You can increase calories in some of 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 breads, non-pureed meats, pastries, or beans. Be extra careful with foods that have a mix of textures.

How to feed someone with dysphagia.

A woman feeding an older woman who has dysphagia

Feeding someone with dysphagia can be challenging, but there are some techniques you can use to make eating easier and more enjoyable:

  • 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.

Keeping a food journal can be useful in remembering what foods and recipes work well. It also keeps track of how much your loved one ate at each meal. Remember that small, frequent meals are usually easier than just a couple of 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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