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As we age, the social and emotional benefits derived from cooking do not diminish. Yet for many people, the opportunity to be involved in preparing what they eat all but vanishes. Preparing what you eat can improve levels of wellness and positively affects a persons ability to chew and swallow food. It also impacts on quality of life, not just from a nutritional perspective, but also in terms of wellbeing and it is a great social opportunity for people.

In fulfilling our many daily tasks as carers, we inadvertently take away people’s independence, so getting them to do things for themselves helps restore that. It can also have a significant impact on improving a person’s appetite. All stages of meal/snack preparation will stimulate saliva production and activate the centres in the brain involved in swallowing.

With involvement in cooking and meal preparation producing such positive outcomes, every opportunity to encourage it should be seized. There are many ways people can get involved.

We should strive to do things ‘with’ and ‘for’ those we care for, not ‘to’ them, in every aspect of planning and preparing a meal, from creating a shopping list, selecting the produce off the shelves, to the final serving of the meal. This will often mean thinking creatively and it may not always be about preparing a main meal for the entire family or a large group, but may be providing the opportunity to cook morning tea or an afternoon snack, or preparing the vegetables – washing potatoes, peeling carrots or shelling peas – Focus on what they can do.

Suggested ideas for activities:

  • Put the tea pot, milk and sugar in the middle of the table. Sit with the person and encourage them to do things like pouring the tea for you both and join them for a chat whilst having tea and biscuits.
  • Try to avoid the smells of cooking being contained to the kitchens, even the smell of freshly baked food helps to stimulate a person’s ability to eat and drink.
  • Get people involved with food preparation – from washing the vegetables to stirring the custard – it is a great way to give someone a sense of purpose. It will not only help eating and drinking difficulties but also helps prevent boredom, offer social engagement opportunities and provide a sense of satisfaction.
  • Assist with serving meals, clearing up.
  • Helping to make cakes for afternoon tea.
  • Read a recipe card for the cook and give instructions on the preparation and each step of the cooking process.
  • Observe and monitor any baking, timing it, watching it and being aware of any smells – are they right or wrong? e.g. burning food.
  • Decide on cutlery needed and size and shape of crockery to suit the meal.
  • Lay the table.
  • Select accompaniments such as salt pepper, sauces that go with that meal.
  • Serving the meal.
Sue Jones is a speech and language therapist with the Older People Mental Health Team.