On a daily basis, I work with care and dining teams to promote high-quality, nutritious ingredients and develop innovations in nutrition and hydration. When creating menus and nutritional programmes, taste always comes first, and the food is then tailored to nutritional needs. Coming from a clinical and nutritional background gives me the best of both worlds, because as well as knowing the science behind food and eating patterns, I understand the nursing needs of older people. Here are my top tips for dining well with dementia:
Eating meals at the same time each day is a good way to get people socialising with one another. Mealtimes also provide a great opportunity to punctuate the day and support people via a routine, which reduces chances of weight loss and malnutrition. Three meals a day should be adequate to provide sufficient balance, although small appetites in older age may require an individual to have snacks in between meals too, to sustain health and energy.
2. Smoothies, smoothies, smoothies
Nutritionally balanced smoothies, made from fresh ingredients, are a great start to the day! They can have a positive impact on energy levels when used to aid weight gain or post-illness. As smoothies are made with whole foods, ingredients can be selected from key nutrient groups to help create a whole and balanced drink. Carbohydrates from fruit and vegetables, protein from skimmed milk powder, fats from nuts or added oils, and a multitude of colour from carefully selected and flavoursome fruit and vegetables are easy to combine together. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium support energy metabolism and vitamins such as B2, B6 and B12 help release energy from foods. One of my favourites is a Caribbean smoothie, made from coconut milk, pineapple, kale, ground nuts and lime; another is made from beetroot, apple, mint, spinach, yogurt and blueberries.
3. Memory-evoking foods
Certain foods can evoke memories of smells and tastes from the past - for example, oranges and cinnamon at Christmas, roast chicken on a Sunday, and baked bread at lunchtime. Positive memories can then in turn trigger appetite and support a routine. Filter coffee at breakfast, home baked bread at lunch, and a homemade soup or stew for dinner are all ways to ensure each mealtime has a stimulating smell. Great food also yields great conversation, engagement, and enjoyment.
4. The dining experience
It’s not just about the food - smaller, intimate dining settings can also benefit those with dementia. Calm, more intimate environments with carefully considered music and visual stimulation can really help. A beautifully laid table with familiar items - be they gravy boats, salt and pepper shakers, table cloths or place mats - may all act as prompts to enjoy, relax, and eat.
5. Texture of food
A late-stage symptom of dementia, called dysphagia, makes it difficult for some individuals to swallow. Sometimes puree or softer foods will be necessary, and a specialist health professional called a Speech and Language Therapist can assess for this. As those with dysphagia are at much greater risk of weight loss and dehydration, it is important to get the right advice to ensure a balanced diet.