Caring for someone with eating problems

If you are the main carer for someone with cancer, it can be upsetting and difficult to know how to deal with eating problems such as lack of appetite or weight loss. People who are very ill often do not feel like eating. Cancer, cancer treatments and medicines can all affect someone’s appetite. Feeling sick and having diarrhoea or constipation can stop people eating. Or they may feel too tired to eat, have a sore or dry throat or mouth, or find chewing and swallowing difficult.

It can be frustrating and worrying when someone you are caring for cannot eat very much. Mealtimes are often an enjoyable and important part of family and social life. The amount someone can eat may change each day, and their likes and dislikes may also change. Knowing when their appetite is at its best means you can make the most of it and treat them to their favourite foods.

Tips for carers about food preparation and serving food

Preparation

  • Take time to ask them what they would like to eat.
  • Try to talk openly about their eating problems or weight loss and the different ways you could both manage it. This can help you both feel more in control of the situation.
  • Try to give them small meals often, whenever the person feels like eating, rather than at set times of the day. 
  • Offer their favourite foods at the times when you know their appetite is at its best.
  • Keep a range of different foods in the house so that you can offer them something at any time of the day. Remember that tinned foods and pre-prepared frozen meals can be as good for them as a meal that takes a long time to prepare.
  • If they cannot manage solid food, try soft foods such as porridge, bananas, soup, shepherd’s pie, yoghurt or milk-based foods like custard or rice pudding.
  • Make batches of a favourite vegetable soup and freeze some for a quick meal at another time. 
  • Moist food is often easier to eat and will help to prevent a dry mouth, so try adding sauces or gravies. You may need to use a liquidiser or blender for some dishes.
  • You may find it helpful to use home meal delivery companies. Supermarket home delivery services may make shopping easier for you.
  • Talk to a dietitian about using energy supplements to add energy to everyday meals and drinks. For example, you could try adding fortified milk to tea or coffee. There are some supplements that do not need a prescription. You can buy these from your local pharmacist. We have more information about manufactured food supplements.
  • Take special care preparing food when the person you care for may be at risk of infections and food poisoning. The doctors or dietitian at the hospital will be able to advise you about this. We have more information about avoiding infection.
  • The person you are caring for may have side-effects of treatment such as nausea, vomiting, taste changes, a sore mouth or altered bowel habits. A member of their medical team can either prescribe something to help or refer them to a dietitian.

Serving food

  • If the person you are caring for finds that cooking smells make them feel sick, prepare food in a different room if possible. Try to serve food in a well-ventilated room.
  • Serve small portions and offer second helpings rather than putting too much food on their plate to begin with, as this can be overwhelming and off-putting.
  • Try not to worry if they cannot always eat what you have cooked. Gently encourage the person you are caring for to eat, but try not to push them too much. It helps to create a relaxed atmosphere at mealtimes. 
  • If someone’s sense of taste or smell has changed, it can sometimes help to serve food cold or at room temperature.
  • Use plastic cutlery if the person affected by cancer notices a metallic taste in their mouth.
  • Try to create a comfortable eating environment.
  • Serve meals so they look appetising.

I restricted what I could eat. And for me, that was hugely frustrating, because I love my food.

Kate