One of the most fundamental ways that a carer can help their friend or relative is by ensuring they have plenty of nutritionally-balanced food and drink. This is particularly vital if they are unwell, as one of the best ways to fight illness, maintain their immune system and boost their energy levels is through ensuring they eat well and stay hydrated.
For most people, this means getting six to eight glasses of water and three balanced meals every day. Their meals should include a mix of:
- At least five portions of fruit or vegetables.
- Starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta.
- Dairy like milk, cheese or yogurt.
- Proteins such as beans, fish, eggs or meat.
The NHS Eatwell Guide gives more advice about how to prepare balanced meals, as well as ideas for easy and healthy recipes you might like to try.
If your friend or family member has one of the many conditions that can require a more specialised diet, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis or dementia, then your assistance with this element of their care can be even more vital to keeping them healthy. Talk to their medical team for further advice about any particular foods to be encouraged or avoided. In these cases, your caring role could also extend to helping them to learn which foods they should and shouldn’t eat and how to decipher a food label to see if it is suitable.
Even when trying to ensure their meals are balanced, healthy and in line with any specialised diet they might require, it is still important to try and involve the person you care for in choosing their food and drink as much as possible. Take time to find out what they like and don’t like and what their favourite meals are. Don’t necessarily rely on what you remember their preferences to be. Not only is it nice to be asked what you would like, but somebody’s tastes can also change over time or due to illness.
It is not just knowing what they should eat that can be complicated for carers, but also how it should be prepared. In some cases this is guided by the person you care for’s medical needs: if they have problems with chewing and swallowing, they may need meals that are easier to eat like purees, mashed food and long-cooked stews and soups. It can also make a big difference to the person you are caring for if you take into consideration how they like their food to be prepared. Something as simple as cutting their sandwich into halves when they have always cut them into triangles can be quite upsetting when you already feel like so much of your life is out of your control. Anything that makes them feel like their normal life is still there and that their preferences are respected can help hugely.
With so many things to consider, it can be very tempting to just step in and make meals yourself for the person you care for, especially when you are already very busy. But it is better, if possible, to support them to be able to accomplish tasks themselves as much as they can, by working together with them to prepare the meal safely. This not only keeps up their skills but can also help their self-esteem, and they may even enjoy it! Why not also cook for yourself at the same time and use meals as an chance to sit down and eat together, turning it into a nice opportunity to socialise too.
We understand though that it can be difficult to find the time in a busy day to ensure that this happens. Some tips that can help to make it more convenient include:
- Planning the meals for the week ahead, and then buying the ingredients needed in advance. This can take the stress out of having to decide what to make every day.
- Batch cooking, where together you prepare food for multiple meals in one go. You could make a big pot of soup, stew, chilli or curry, for instance, then divide it into smaller portions and freeze them. That way there is a meal that is ready to grab and reheat on particularly busy days.
- Ordering shopping online, which can soon become much quicker and easier than going to the supermarket.
It is also important to not always rely on your friend or relative to say when they are thirsty or hungry. Particular conditions, including Alzheimer’s, stroke or old age, can diminish feelings of hunger or thirst. Also, if the person you care for worries about struggling when they need to use the toilet, prepare meals or wash up dishes, this can also lead to them making an effort to eat and drink less. This means they may not always ask for food or drink, even if they really need it. It can also mean you may need to make amends to how they eat and drink. For instance, if the person you care for has a reduced appetite, they may struggle to eat much during their meals so require frequent snacks in between to provide them with enough calories. Or you may need to increase the flavour in their food through things like herbs and spices to counteract their diminished taste buds.