How To Support Loved Ones With Low or No Appetite

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Thu May 25 2023.

Family laughing around table.

How To Support Loved Ones With Low or No Appetite

It’s 11:30 a.m. and almost time for lunch. You go to the kitchen and make a sandwich and a side salad. But when you bring the meal to your loved one, they take one look at the plate and say they aren’t hungry. 

Many family caregivers have difficulty convincing loved ones with low or no appetite to eat. Fortunately, there are various things you can do to prevent mealtime headaches and encourage good nutrition.

What You’ll Need

All you need to support a loved one with low or no appetite is a good attitude and willingness to try different things. Appetite changes occur for many reasons, so it can take time to identify and treat the underlying cause. Be patient, stay positive, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Steps to Help a Loved One with Low Appetite

Step 1: Visit Their Doctor

Appetite does usually decline with age, but not drastically. So, changes to your loved one’s mealtime habits may indicate an underlying medical issue.

“Look for signs that might indicate pain or difficulty swallowing, like grimacing, frequent coughing, or pocketing of food in the cheeks during meals,” said Michelle Saari, BSc, BHNSc, MSc, RD, a registered dietician and the founder of LongTermCareRD.

“Your loved one’s doctor can determine if these symptoms are a byproduct of medication that changes the taste of foods, an infection, a recent illness, depression, or disrupted sleep patterns.”

An official diagnosis can help you determine the best way to support your loved one.

Step 2: Serve Small Meals Instead of Large Ones

A big meal with multiple sides might be your dream dinner. But it can be a real dealbreaker for someone with a low appetite. 

“A completely full plate can be overwhelming for someone experiencing appetite loss,” Saari said. “Try offering smaller portions of foods throughout the day. If your loved one requests more, then provide seconds.”

Caregiver Tip

Stock your loved one’s favorite foods and drinks in the pantry. That way, they’re available whenever the mood strikes.

Step 3: Make Meals Visually Appealing

First-century socialite (and rumored cookbook author) Marcus Apicius, is attributed with the saying, “We eat with our eyes.” As a family caregiver, incorporate this advice into your at-home meal planning.

“Imagine a meal with potatoes, chicken breast (without sauce), and cauliflower –– you’ve got all white foods,” Saari said. “This looks bland. Try to mix up the colors of the foods you’re offering and serve them on a different colored plate. Research shows that a visually appealing meal can help with food intake.”

Step 4: Limit Distractions

People with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can be easily distracted. If there’s too much going on at meal or snack time, your loved one might have trouble focusing.

“It’s really important to create a pleasant and relaxing eating experience,” Saari said. “If there are too many distractions in the dining room, such as loud music or blaring TV show, it can prevent them from focusing on the food. Try and keep interruptions to a minimum to support quiet and peaceful meals.”

Step 5: Serve Tried and True Classics

If your loved one refuses to eat the food you prepare, it can be tempting to try something new. But it’s best to stick with familiar staples when it comes to meals and snacks.

“Offer your loved one foods that you know they enjoy,” said Saari. “Don’t prepare meals with unfamiliar ingredients or seasonings. During a period of low or no appetite, it’s not a good time to be adventurous.”  

Step 6: Experiment With Texture

If your loved one wears dentures or has difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), they might need to avoid solid foods. This presents another layer of complexity when dealing with low or no appetite. 

“Texture is really important (but often overlooked),” said Jen Gruber, a family caregiver and caregiving influencer (@thecroniccaregiver). “I always ask for feedback and try to make meals that are satisfying to eat.”

“If your loved one has trouble eating solid foods, make smoothies and shakes. These can be a great way to add extra nutrition and calories to a diet. Try blending together fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and protein powder for a tasty and nutritious treat.”

Pro Tip: Our Nutrition & Feeding section features pureed meals from renowned brands, including Thick & Easy and Thick-It

Step 7: Offer a Reward

Sometimes, getting a loved one to finish a snack or meal requires a little outside motivation.

“A little reward never hurt anyone,” Gruber said. “Sometimes, I offer a ‘clean plate’ reward, like a small shake (which I load up with extra goodies on my side, like protein powder). It’s a small thing, but it can make mealtime feel a little more special.” 

Need More Information?

Supporting a loved one with low or no appetite can leave you feeling isolated and alone. Know that we’re here to help!

Our nutrition and feeding section has everything you need to support your loved one’s diet, including product guides, customer reviews, and prepackaged meals and shakes. Need help? Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to support@carewell.com to connect with our friendly care specialists today.

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.