How to Improve Nutrition for Elderly Adults Who Won’t Eat 

By: Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Fact-checked by: Kathryn Bubeck, Registered Dietician

Seniors refuse to eat for many different reasons, including cognitive disorders, medical conditions, and social and environmental factors. Here are several ways you can improve nutrition for elderly adults who refuse to eat. 

Income Disclosure: I recommend products based on my personal experience working with seniors. I may earn a commission on items purchased from links in this guide. Learn More.

Being the caregiver for a senior can be a challenge, but it can be particularly difficult when the adult you’re caring for refuses to eat. An estimated 40 out of every 100,000 adults over the age of 85 dies because of complications of malnourishment caused by inadequate food intake (1), which is why it’s so important to take this problem seriously.

Establish a Daily Routine

Seniors can benefit greatly from daily routines, and so can their caregivers. Not only can a daily routine improve the health and well-being of older adults (2), but it increases the likelihood that a senior will be hungry when food is served. Eating at the same time every day can boost the appetite and improve digestion. (3) 

Daily routines can also be very helpful for people with dementia, who often feel distressed or confused at meal times. Sticking to a familiar routine can reduce restlessness and agitation, making it easier to get through meal times. (4) Take the time to establish a routine that works for your household and stick to it!

Offer Choices 

Adults often have to deal with a loss of freedom as they age, particularly if they are impaired. This can be frustrating, and it can sometimes lead to seniors exercising control in any way that they can, such as refusing the food they are served. These issues can be avoided by taking steps to give older adults a sense of independence. 

Instead of offering seniors a meal that they have no say over, make a point of offering them choices. This doesn’t necessarily require you to prepare multiple meals. You could meal prep ahead of time and let the senior choose the food they eat each day, prepare a few dishes and ask seniors which ones they want on their plate, or offer some sort of alternative, like a snack or a homemade nutritional shake that includes their favorite fruits and veggies.

When elderly adults feel like they have input over their meals, they’ll be more willing to eat. 

Address Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is a side effect of many medications. When dry mouth is severe, it can make it uncomfortable to chew or swallow. It’s not unusual for a senior experiencing this symptom to refuse food or to stop eating after just a few bites. 

That’s why it’s smart to treat dry mouth ahead of meals. Many over-the-counter mouthwashes and rinses can lubricate the mouth, temporarily relieving dryness.

It can also be helpful to use a humidifier to increase moisture levels in the air. Being proactive about dry mouth will allow seniors to eat with minimal discomfort. 

Make Water a Priority 

Dehydration is a common issue for seniors. Kidney function declines with age, which means adults can experience symptoms of dehydration more quickly.

Some prescription drugs, like blood pressure medications, can flush water from the body. (5) On top of that, elderly adults don’t always experience thirst signals, which means they may not realize they need water in the first place. (6)

Not only can dehydration cause a number of debilitating symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, and nausea, but it can lead to a complete loss of appetite. (7) It’s important to keep track of how much water older adults are drinking. If you take steps to prevent dehydration, you can avoid malnourishment as well. 

RELATED: 10 Nutrition Tips for Older Adults

Ensure That Healthy Snacks Are Always Available

If an older adult doesn’t feel up to eating a full meal, you should offer them something smaller. While it’s best to avoid giving seniors empty calories, there are plenty of healthy and nutrient-dense snacks that are perfect for older adults. Some of the best options include:

  • Greek yogurt 
  • String cheese
  • Fresh fruit 
  • Hard-boiled eggs 
  • Vegetables and hummus 
  • Avocado toast 
  • Oatmeal
  • Nuts and seeds

If seniors have difficulty chewing, you’ll want to modify these snacks so that they can be enjoyed safely. For example, fruit can be puréed, and vegetables can be parboiled. Instead of nuts, you can offer nut butter.

Just be cautious about serving seniors pre-packed snacks. Many of them are high in processed sugar, which can be harmful to older adults. (8)

Serve More Finger Foods 

Eating with silverware can be challenging for many elderly adults. Hand tremors, arthritis, and limited range of motion can all make it difficult to eat with a fork, knife, and spoon. Utensils can sometimes be confusing for seniors with dementia. Some older adults would rather refuse food than ask someone to feed them. 

Serving finger foods allows older adults to eat independently without the use of utensils. Cut fruit into finger-sized slices before serving. Offer potatoes or sweet potato wedges. Try serving protein rich foods like chicken strips or hard-boiled eggs. Many seniors are happier to eat when they’re able to serve themselves. 

Invest In Adaptive Utensils 

In addition to offering finger foods, you may want to consider utensils that were made with aging adults in mind. There are many types of utensils on the market, including weighted utensils, ergonomically designed cutlery that’s simple to grip, and utensils with unconventional designs that are easier to position. 

While adaptive utensils are typically more expensive than standard silverware, they’re often worth the cost. Having access to these kinds of utensils can be life changing for seniors. With adaptive utensils, seniors have the ability to feed themselves a wider range of foods. 

Try Liquid Foods

When chewing is a struggle, it can be difficult to eat more than a few bites. When seniors don’t have the energy to eat a traditional meal, you may want to offer them liquid foods instead. From nutritional drinks to green smoothies to puréed soups, liquid food can make it easier for seniors to get the calories and the nutrients that they need. 

RELATED: Energy Drinks for Seniors

While a liquid nutrition sources for seniors may sound limiting, there are actually plenty of options. Oatmeal and yogurt drinks are ideal for breakfast, and virtually any type of soup can be puréed. It’s even possible to fortify easy-to-eat foods like pudding and gelatin. Liquid foods are essential for seniors that have a hard time chewing, and they can be a good option for adults with limited energy as well.  

Track Food Intake Closely

If a senior is refusing food on a regular basis, you should start keeping a journal of everything that they do — and don’t — eat. This journal should be as detailed as possible. Write down what they were offered, the time they were served food, and how much they ate. Make note of any behaviors displayed as well. 

Over time, these notes will give you a clearer picture of how you can encourage older adults to eat. For example, you may notice that the senior is willing to eat a certain type of food, or that they have a larger appetite at a specific type of day. Refusing food is a problem, and gathering information can be the best way to solve that problem. 

RELATED: Debunked Myths About Senior Nutrition

Talk to a Doctor 

If a senior continues to refuse food, you should discuss the issue with their doctor. Not only is malnourishment a serious issue for seniors, but it’s possible that there are factors contributing to the lack of appetite. It could be a side effect of medication or a symptom of a health condition. 

By communicating these issues with a doctor, you’ll be able to tackle the issue head on and find the best solution to the problem. All adults need nutrients, and a healthy diet is even more important with seniors. Don’t hesitate to bring up food refusal or a lack of appetite with a doctor. 

  1. https://hign.org/consultgeri/resources/symptoms/refusing-eat-drink
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30247549/
  3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0748730419892105
  4. https://www.alzheimersproject.org/news/the-importance-of-routine-and-familiarity-to-persons-with-dementia/
  5. https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/diuretic-treatment-high-blood-pressure
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dehydration/symptoms-causes/syc-20354086
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25495101/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6662517/

About the Expert

Because I strive to provide you with accurate information, I had this article fact-checked by Kathryn Bubeck, RD, LDN a registered dietician in North Carolina. She has dual bachelor degrees in Nutrition and Health Behavior Management and is currently pursuing a medical degree with a focus on oncology.
Share on:

Related Posts

Leave a Comment