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Some of us may not think twice about stopping for breakfast, lunch, or even dinner. But for many individuals, mealtime signifies more than just a time to eat. It’s a time to gather and converse, experience the joy of being with loved ones, and take comfort in the foods, flavors, and textures.

Unfortunately, swallowing disorders, like dysphagia, can disrupt many things about mealtime we have come to know and love. Individuals may have to adopt a modified diet, meaning their food and liquids must be thickened and or puréed before consuming. They may have to shift from eating foods they’ve always enjoyed to foods that allow for a safer and easier swallow.

This change can have a deep physical and emotional impact. Some experience feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety. They no longer want to sit at a table with friends while they have to eat a modified diet and can feel embarrassed, losing interest in mealtime and refusing to eat altogether.

Fortunately, there are many ways to create a safe and enjoyable mealtime that allows for patients with dysphagia to maintain their dignity. This includes knowing what products are right for your patient or loved one, how they should be consumed, and other factors that can aid in providing a positive dining experience.

  • Caregivers should fully understand and be on board with a mealtime plan that supports those with dysphagia. They should follow the directions for the food and beverage thickeners recommended by a healthcare professional, such as a speech-language pathologist. If able and interested, involve the patient or loved one in the meal planning, shopping, and preparation. Allow cooking aromas to fill the dining area to stimulate the appetite.
  • Providing a calm and homelike atmosphere can reduce anxiety and allow for a better, more enjoyable mealtime and interaction with family. Suggest that meals be served in a warm, well-lit, and inviting dining area without glare or shadows. Limit noise and distractions from a television, radio, or boisterous visitors so the patient or loved one can concentrate on consuming their meal. A sturdy chair should be provided to allow the patient to sit upright with their feet comfortably on the floor.
  • Eating and drinking too quickly can increase the risk of aspiration. Encourage slow eating with smaller utensils. To ensure the food stays hot and appetizing, begin by serving half of the meal then offering a second helping. Also, consider supporting their sense of independence through the use of adaptive utensils, dishware, and accessories, allowing them to feed themselves. If not, asking them to indicate when they’re ready for another bite gives them a sense of control during mealtime.
  • The patient or loved one should be encouraged to clear their mouth of all food. To assist, offer a final drink to help them swallow any remaining food. They should then sit or stand upright for 30 minutes after eating to avoid the possibility of reflux. If the person is able, invite them to help with post-meal clean-up. This allows those with dysphagia to fully participate in their family’s mealtime routine and gives them the opportunity to regain their sense of dignity and quality of life.

Following these steps can help your patients and their caregivers safely enjoy meals together and provide much-needed interaction and a sense of normalcy for families challenged by a swallowing disorder.