Adaptive Equipment for Eating: What, When, Why

“Adaptive Equipment for Eating” was written by Heidi Huynh, Occupational Therapist and owner of Ascend Therapy Services.  Reviewed and edited by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND.

*This article includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

This article covers 9 pieces of adaptive equipment for eating:

Why Use Adaptive Equipment for Eating?

Some adults have difficulty with feeding themselves for a variety of reasons. However, there are a plethora of assistive or adaptive tools to assist with this!

Using these pieces of equipment can help increase confidence, independence, quality of life, and overall health.

It Brings Independence

The greater amount of independence someone has, the longer they will be able to hold onto that independence. And in turn, their quality of life.

Oftentimes when someone consistently does something for an individual, that individual loses the skill to do it themselves. And unfortunately, loss of other skills may quickly follow.

Does your loved one needs assistance to eat? Perhaps due to low vision, tremors, weakness, or other factors making it difficult to scoop food and bring it to their mouth?

If so, the adaptive equipment for eating listed below can help bring independence back to this daily task.

Greater independence often brings with it greater confidence, quality of life, and safety.

Mealtime is a Social Engagement 

Mealtime has always been a social interaction for most families and individuals. When we get together with friends or gather with family for the holidays, what do we do? Have a meal together.

If someone has difficulty eating, they have to focus their attention on their struggles instead of enjoying their meal.

Using adaptive equipment for eating can reduce physical difficulties. And allow more attention to be focused on time with others during their meal.

It can also bring greater confidence, allowing a greater comfort of being around others while eating.

Nutrition is a Necessity

What is one thing that each and every human being does multiple times a day? Eat! Nourishment is a requirement for survival, and one must eat and drink to receive this nourishment.

If someone has difficulty feeding themselves, this is a struggle they must endure multiple times a day.

Finding the right adaptive equipment for eating will not only help your loved one occasionally, but every day. Multiple times a day.

Choosing the right adaptive equipment for eating

Let’s talk about choosing the right adaptive equipment for eating.

Identify the Difficulty

The first step in choosing the right piece of adaptive equipment for eating is to identify the specific areas your loved one is having difficulty.

Is it a vision issue? Perhaps they are having a hard time seeing their food, or deciphering between the food, plate, and table?

Is the difficulty coming from weakness in their hand, fingers, or arm? Perhaps this is causing a struggle to stab the food on the fork or bring it to their mouth?

Perhaps your loved one has a tremor? This could be causing the food to fly off the fork or creating spillage when trying to spoon soups.

Does your loved one have limited range of motion? Perhaps they have a hard time bending the wrist or elbow? Or moving the shoulder or neck in the proper way for independent eating?

Identifying the root cause of the problem will help you to identify what the specific need is. And from there, find the solution.

Professional Guidance

If you are unsure adaptive equipment for eating is right for your loved one, reach out for professional guidance.

An Occupational Therapist can complete an evaluation and assess what specific assistance your loved one needs.

They can help you attain the right equipment and train your loved one how to use it. Additionally, they can train you to properly assist or support if needed.

How do you find an Occupational Therapist (OT)? Ask your physician for an OT referral and they can guide you. As an OT with a mission to help older adults increase safety and independence, you can also contact me!

Adaptive equipment for eating

Tools to Assist with Difficult Eating

As mentioned above, there could be many factors that cause difficulty while eating, or with self-feeding.

Some factors that bring difficulty with the task of scooping food, bringing it to the mouth, and feeding oneself include:

  • low vision
  • poor grasp or hand strength
  • limited range of motion
  • decreased coordination
  • tremors

Low Vision and Eating

Having low vision can cause many problems with eating. This can include difficulty identifying what is being served. Or where to find the specific portions of the meal on the plate.

Additionally, it can lead to pushing food off of the plate while trying to fork or scoop. Or reaching for cups or utensils and bumping other items in the way.

Proper Set-up for Low Vision

Setting up the table space consistently and within reach can be a huge help for finding needed items when eating. Try to set the plate, utensils, and cup in the same location each meal.

When setting the table, identify each piece of the set up. And identify each food item using location terms to orient your loved one to the place setting.

If they typically use their right hand to drink, have the cup on the right side of the plate. If they drink with their left, keep the cup on the left side. Use a consistent distance from the plate each time.

Set up the fork or spoon in the same location each meal.

If you serve a soup or salad on a separate dish, keep the location within reach. And again, be consistent each time the table is set. Once they finish that small dish, it can be removed to reduce obstacles.

Other than the necessities, keep the area clear.

Assist if needed in opening packages or adding condiments. Additionally, move the items that are no longer needed to reduce clutter. And finally, to allow for needed items to be more easily identified.

Color Contrast for Low Vision

Using color contrast creates a better visual scheme. It is difficult to find dark food on a dark plate or identify a light plate on a light table.

If the table and plate are both dark, use a light-colored place mat to differentiate the two. Or vice versa using a darker place mat with a light-colored plate and table.

If the food you are serving is primarily dark in color, use a lighter plate if available. This will provide contrast between the food and the plate.

Try to place silverware on a surface with a different colored background behind it, to find the pieces when needed. Colored utensils are also at times used for easier identification if the silver color is hard to see.

Poor Grasp or Strength and Eating

Some adults have a hard time grasping their eating utensils properly due to decreased hand strength and poor grip.

Not being able to fully hold the fork, spoon, or knife makes eating difficult.

It can be challenging to scoop food and keep it on the utensil as they bring it to the mouth. This could cause spillage, dropping utensils, and the inability to get food fully onto the fork or spoon.

Built Up Utensils

Built up, or large handled utensils work great for those who have difficulty grasping cutlery as they used to.

Do you notice your loved one scooping food with the spoon, and as they bring it to their mouth the spoon tilts and spills? This may be because of how they are grasping the narrow, flat handle.

A large handle is easily able to be turned in someone’s hand. This way that it can stay upright while bringing the soup to the mouth.

It also allows a larger grasp pattern, making it easier to hold when one does not have as much fine motor control or grip strength.

Though these utensils have wide, large, handles, they are built lightly to allow for easy pick up and manipulation. They are different than weighted utensils (which are discussed below).

Lip Plate or Scoop Plate

A lip plate or scoop plate can be helpful for a variety of difficulties. This includes vision already spoken of and coordination which we will hear about later in this article.

It is also great for those with limited strength. For those with difficulty stabbing the food with the fork strongly enough for it to stay.

The lip plate has a raised edge. This allows one to use the edge of the plate as a barrier while pushing food against it to fully move onto the fork or spoon.

Universal Cuff

There are a variety of types of universal cuffs. These are straps that attach to or wrap around the hand to help hold items including forks and spoons.

These EazyHold straps attach to the top and bottom of the handle of the utensil. Sliding the hand through the strap gives extra support to help hold the hand to the utensil while gripping it.

This works well if your loved one is able to properly grip the utensil, but does not have the strength to continue a strong grip during all phases of eating.

The strap gives the extra support needed to hold the weight around the entire hand rather than just with the fingers.

Limited Range of Motion and Eating

Have you noticed your loved one having a difficult time fully moving their wrist, arm, elbow, shoulder, or head? Maybe they reach for something in a way that does not look as smooth as how another might do it?

There are many tiny movements and motions that our body makes while feeding ourselves that we may not notice until we are no longer able to move in that way.

Having limited range of motion can affect the movement pattern of grasping a utensil, scooping the food, and bringing it to the mouth.

Swivel Spoon

A swivel spoon sometimes takes a bit to get used to.

This is because the trough of the spoon lies lower than the handle. However, it is positioned in a way to compensate for decreased turning of the arm.

As someone holds the handle, the spoon trough is on a swivel and stays upright even though the handle may be turning as someone is unable to keep it in position while moving their arm.

This can allow for less food items to fall off of the spoon while bringing it to the mouth.

Nosey Cup

Does your loved one have a hard time lifting their head and neck while drinking?

This nosey cup has a cut out on one side, allowing someone to tilt the cup without tilting back their head.

While drinking, the opening is lifted toward the nose. Therefore, the cup does not run into the face while being tilted.

Offset Utensils

These utensils have a 90-degree angle, or adjustable angle. This can assist when someone may be unable to reach the fork to the mouth with a standard straight utensil.

The angle at the end allows for someone to hold the utensil with their own grasp pattern and bring it to their mouth despite inability to turn or twist their arm in a typical pattern.

Tremor/Coordination and Eating

Do you notice your loved one shaking as they attempt to put food on their fork? Or the food flying off their spoon while they attempt to bring it to their mouth due to a tremor? 

Many people with a tremor report frustration with eating. And some state feeling embarrassed while eating in public because of the spillage it causes.

The adaptive equipment for eating listed below can help to reduce (or calm) the tremors. Thereby allowing for less spillage while one eats.

Weighted Utensils

For some light tremors, it may just take a bit of weight to calm the shaking.

Weighted utensils come in a variety of styles, from weighted larger handles to utensils that look like a typical spoon or fork but are created to be heavier.

Finding the best style may take some trial and error, looking for something with the right amount of weight with the proper grasp pattern needed.

One could also use light wrist weights to try to calm the tremor as well. 

Dycem/Stabilizer

Dicem is a roll or sheet of double-sided grip. This does not leave any sticky residue.

Additionally, it moves easily from one place to another, but when placed, provides traction to anything under and on top of it.

Placing the plate on a sheet of dicem or other traction mat may help the plate stay in place while scooping and reaching for food.

Rocker Knife

​​Does your loved one like to cut their own food, but have a hard time holding the food steady with one hand while cutting with the other?

This rocker knife allows for cutting in a rocking motion, rather than a back and forth motion, creating more ease with one handed use or unsteadiness.

Summary: Adaptive Equipment for Eating

There are a variety of reasons why someone may need assistance with feeding themselves. Maintaining as much independence as possible for this necessary daily task is crucial for quality of life.

The tools above may help your loved one maintain that independence, and feel more confident while enjoying mealtime.

If you notice your loved one having difficulty while feeding themselves, refer to this guide to identify the root problem, and find appropriate adaptive equipment for eating.

Additionally, you can reach out to an Occupational Therapist to assist you with finding the right equipment and set up for your loved one.

More information and resources on adaptations for daily activity can be found at We Age with Purpose.

If you are interested in hearing more about how I can support you and your loved one by working together, please reach out to me at [email protected]

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