Children love eating with their hands. It’s an easy way for them to gain independence and feed themselves when they don’t have the skills to use eating utensils.
In fact, many cultures don’t use silverware, and seem to manage wonderful meals without a problem. Indian flatbread like roti or naan is used to scoop up curry. Ethiopian injera—a soft, spongy bread—is great for picking up spicy chicken stew.
I too love eating with my hands. Give me fish and chips or tacos and I am happy.
But I have been thinking about a different group of people who also benefit from the simplicity of eating with their hands. They are older people and others who have trouble managing all the complexities of a knife and fork.
Tremors are common with many diseases like Parkinson’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, and different forms of dementia. People with these issues may find mealtimes especially troubling. They may be embarrassed at their lack of ability to self-feed or be dependent on someone else to help feed them. Some people don’t have much of an appetite, and a large plate, heaping with too much food, can seem overwhelming before they even start to eat. For all these folks, the joys of eating with your hands can also bring with it dignity and some independence at the table.
This idea is gaining proponents at many senior meal sites and in senior living communities. The challenge is finding recipes that are high in protein, easy to chew and swallow, and provide balanced nutrition.
Good options include appetizers, many of which have the benefit of being one or two bites of something that can be held in your hand. Sharing this meal with the person you are cooking for will make eating “out of hand” seem normal, something everyone can enjoy.
To make mealtime more interesting, try offering a variety of items on small plates, so people can pick and choose what they want. If cooking all this at once seems overwhelming, try making a batch and freezing half or more. Many of these food items will hold well.
Serving small bites with a dipping sauce, syrup, dressing, or other flavoring may also help moisten the food and not only make it more flavorful, but also easier to swallow.
Of course, if the person you are cooking for or sharing a meal with has swallowing problems, poor teeth, or chewing problems, or other issues with texture or consistency, you should consult with a speech pathologist or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) specializing in swallowing and feeding issues. The recipes below are also low sodium, since almost all of us need to cut back to less than 2,000 mg a day for healthy kidneys and hearts.
Make these a bit smaller than usual, about 1 inch across. Serve with a red sauce for dipping.
Based on 16 (2-3 meatballs each) servings per recipe.
1.5 pounds ground beef
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup quick cooking oatmeal
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
Combine and mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Roll into 1″ balls and place on a baking sheet.
Bake for 10–15 minutes, until meatballs are cooked through.
Serve with homemade tomato sauce for great flavor and less sodium than canned.
Make a double recipe of these tasty meatballs and freeze for future meals.
Nutritional Information (per serving)
Calories: 163, Carbohydrates: 4 grams, Protein: 13 grams, Sodium: 72 milligrams
Anytime Energy Bites
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons unsalted peanuts or other nuts, chopped
1/4 cup semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
1/3 cup shredded coconut
3 large eggs
1/3 cup applesauce
3 tablespoons honey
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9”x9” pan with butter or cooking spray.
In a large mixing bowl, combine oats, cinnamon, peanuts, chocolate chips and coconut. Beat eggs in a small mixing bowl. Add applesauce and honey and mix well. Add egg mixture to the oat mixture and mix well.
Form into 1” to 1½” balls, or you can press them into the pan and cut in squares after baking.
Set balls evenly into bottom of the greased 9”x9” pan. Cook for about 20–30 minutes, checking regularly so they don’t burn.
May keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.
Nutritional Information (per serving) based on 8 or 9 servings per recipe
Calories: 206, Carbohydrates: 27 grams, Protein: 7 grams, Sodium: 35 milligrams, dietary fiber: 8 grams
Contributor Katy G. Wilkens recently retired as registered dietitian and department head at Northwest Kidney Centers. The National Kidney Foundation Council on Renal Nutrition has honored her with its highest awards for excellence in education and for significant contributions in renal nutrition. She has also been awarded the Medal of Excellence in kidney nutrition from the American Association of Kidney Patients.