When dental pain, an upset stomach, or a dry mouth makes eating difficult, mealtime can feel more like a chore than a joy. It can be frustrating if you’re no longer able to enjoy some of the foods you’re used to eating. And you may worry about how to get all the nutrition you need. But, with a few small changes to your diet or the way you prepare food, you can continue to enjoy meals that are healthy and taste good.
This article will address some of the most common eating problems that people face as they get older, and offer suggestions on how to eat well despite these challenges.
Eating Problem #1: Difficulty Chewing
Whether you have ill-fitting dentures or problems with your natural teeth, chewing hard or tough foods may not be as easy as it once was. Meats and raw fruits and vegetables usually pose the most difficulty, but this doesn’t mean you have to give up these foods entirely.
“With just a few changes and a little creativity, most people can continue to eat many of the foods they like,” says Kathleen Zelman, RD. “If apples are a favorite, try making a chunky apple sauce instead of eating them raw. Or incorporate favorite vegetables into soups and casseroles.”
Sons and daughters can be helpful in making sure there are attractive, nutritional options available at their parents' fingertips. "As you get older, the less you have to prepare, the more you're going to eat," says Joanne Koenig Coste, a former caregiver to her parents and husband, and national lecturer on family caregiving. "I would prepare soups and stews in advance and freeze them in small portions. Or I'd mix up a smoothie, or frappe, in the blender at my mom's house and leave it in the blender jar in her refrigerator. Then she could just take it out, mix it up, have some, and put it back in the fridge to have more later."
The key is to be creative when thinking about food. “When people are having trouble chewing, they may go to whatever is easiest and quick, such as tea and toast or coffee and doughnuts,” says Carole Palmer, EdD, RD, professor of nutrition and oral health promotion at Tufts Dental School in Boston. “But these choices don’t offer much nutrition. Instead, look at the food groups one by one and find foods you like and can still chew.”
- If you love meat but steak is out of the question, try having lean hamburger or beef stew instead. Or look for other sources of protein, such as baked or broiled fish. “Fish gives you the added benefit of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health, says Palmer.
- Eggs are also a good way to get protein. “Eggs are such a versatile food, there are so many ways to have them -- whether just on their own, as part of an omelet, or hard-boiled in a salad,” says Zelman. Eating one egg a day is healthy for most adults as long as you watch your cholesterol from other sources. But if you want more than one, use the whites only.
- Vegetables can be cooked to make them softer, or cut up and added to soups, stews, and casseroles for easy chewing. Canned or frozen vegetables are another easy-to-chew option. Many soft fruits, such as berries and melons lend themselves to easy chewing. But for even greater ease, you can cut them into in a fruit salad or blend them into a smoothie with a bit of yogurt and juice.
"Mixing Jell-O and yogurt makes a great pudding," Coste says. "Just mix the Jell-O with one cup of water, instead of two, and then stir in a cup of yogurt. It has a stronger taste than either yogurt or Jell-O, and older people like the stronger flavors, especially if their taste is declining."
- And don’t forget to take advantage of other healthy foods that are naturally easy to chew, such as rice, whole grains, cereals, beans, and pasta. “Try to concentrate on all the wonderful-tasting foods that you can eat, rather than focusing on the few that you can’t,” says Palmer.