Vital Nutrition: Caregiver Tips for Improving an Elder's Appetite

By Chef Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFPP

We know that sometimes just getting an elder to eat can be a challenge.  They may tell their caregiver they are not hungry, or food just doesn’t appeal to them.  Research has confirmed time and again that good nutrition can improve chronic conditions and increase an elder’s vitality.

Contributing Factors

Trouble chewing or swallowing, side effects of medication,  chronic disease and even loneliness can all contribute to poor appetite.  No matter the cause, eating poorly leads to weight and muscle loss, decreased strength and mobility and a greater risk of falls or entering the hospital.

Try these practical tips to increase food intake in elders:

  • Serve the largest meal when the elder is most alert, usually in the morning.
  • Offer small meals more frequently and focus on smaller portions.  An overly full plate can overwhelm an elder.
  • Focus on lesser amounts of nutrient-dense foods more than overall volume.  For example, a whole plate of pasta contains mostly carbohydrates which are quickly digested and converted to glucose.  Try bite-sized pieces of protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods for more balanced nutrition.
  • Boost calorie contents with added sauces, gravies or shredded cheese on entrees or side dishes.  Add powdered milk or protein powders to smoothies, milkshakes and hot or cold cereals.
  • Keep easy-to-eat snack items in plain sight.  Fill a basket with whole grain crackers, dried fruit, protein bars or trail mix.  Remember that opening packages can be a challenge for those with dementia or arthritis.  Consider re-packing snacks or starting to open the package for them. Cold snacks should be kept front and center in the refrigerator, ready to eat.
  • Serve finger foods for those who have trouble using eating utensils.  Make sure foods are cut into bite sized pieces.
  • Encourage daily exercise and time outdoors.  Studies have shown this improves mood and appetite.

Make Mealtime an Enjoyable Experience

Make mealtime the highlight of an elder’s day by creating an enjoyable experience.  Small details like setting the table with a colorful table cloth or fresh flowers from the garden can improve mood and appetite.    

Setting the table with a colorful table cloth or fresh flowers from the garden can improve mood and appetite.

Boost Food's Flavor

Reduction in the sense of smell and taste is a natural part of aging. Flavor and aroma both play a role in appetite;  boosting food’s flavor often improves intake.  Use extra seasoning like onion, garlic, black pepper, herbs and spices to add flavor appeal.  Avoid overuse of salt as it can contribute to fluid retention and other health complications. 


Don't Fill Up on Fluids

Serve beverages between meals to prevent an elder from filling up on fluids.  Encourage plain water but calorie dense drinks, like protein shakes or smoothies are okay, too. Discourage sugary sodas,  juice drinks or excessive caffeine.  Remind  an elder that fluids are a necessary part of a healthy diet. Fluids flush away toxins, improve digestion and reduce constipation. 


Offer Encouragement

Even if an elder says she isn't hungry, trying some of the tip's I've mentioned can help her to get vital nutrients.  Remind her that eating well can reduce symptoms of chronic disease and give her the energy to do the things she enjoys.  Encouragement from a caregiver can make a world of difference.


Chef Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFPP, is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She is passionate about empowering caregivers to make positive nutritional changes and mealtime meaningful for those in their care.   She can be reached at