Mealtime Assistance

The mealtime is an important experience within some sport and active recreation programs. It is a great time for participants to share their new endeavours. The mealtime provides the opportunity for development in a number of areas; it is not just the time for consuming food.

The mealtime is a social activity for all people; it is an opportunity for the development of skills and also a time to nourish the body. The leader enables the participant to share in these experiences.

Check with the person before a meal how they would like to be assisted during mealtime. As a social occasion it includes conversation and interactions with other participants. Talk to the participant during the meal and encourage participation in conversation.

Points to consider:

Give the participant the choice of the amount and type of food and drink they will consume and also the order in which they will consume it.

Ask the person how they want to be assisted. Where possible sit with the person so that you are at the same eyelevel with them and avoid straining your back by bending over repeatedly. Avoid getting up between mouthfuls of food. Be there for the duration of the meal.

Relax with the participant you are assisting, be part of the conversation and share -enjoy the social situation.

Encourage independence in self-feeding while being aware of acceptable eating behaviour.

A consistent approach to offering assistance during mealtime will be valuable in encouraging the development of cooperative skills.

The movements involved in feeding oneself are routine and exact. It provides a good situation for participants with a physical disability (for example a participant with cerebral palsy) to learn to coordinate movements and to sit in a posture that will enable them to control their movements. Check the posture of participants before a meal to ensure that they are sitting in way that is comfortable and is conducive to effective eating.

For the participant who has limited control over head movements, it is advisable for the leader to support the head of the participant. The leader can support the head from either the back, side or under the chin and leave the area in front of the participant free for the passage of food. Encourage the participant to keep their neck straight and the head tucked in a little. This will enable the swallowing of food without it going down the airway. It is very hard to swallow with your head tipped back. (Try it yourself!)


  • To gather information about how the participant needs/wants to be assisted with meals, prior to the program commencing.
  • To treat the participant as a maturing individual person, not as child who needs assistance.
  • Watch out for the amount of food placed in the mouth. Too much or too little can cause coughing and spluttering.
  • Some disabilities cause a clamping of the teeth when something enters the mouth. This bite reflex can make it difficult to place food in the mouth. Put the food between the gum and cheek. It is advisable not to use a metal spoon but rather a flexible plastic one to avoid injury.
  • Some participant can feed themselves for a short while and then become tired and need assistance. Encourage participant to eat at their own pace.
  • The way food has been prepared may determine the degree to which the participant is able to help himself or herself. Solid food will stay on a fork, soft foods will not. Diced meat is easier to eat than a larger piece. Prepare food so that the participant can eat independently.

If a participant should start to choke:

  • Encourage the participant to relax and cough;
  • Check the mouth and remove the food; and
  • Call for the person trained in first aid.


Some participants are able to drink from a conventional cup by themselves; others may require assistance. Some use a cup with a spout and others prefer to use a straw. There are a number of ways of assisting a participant to drink. This can be from either behind the participant or from the side of the participant. Check with the participant, which is the preferred way. Some prefer to drink a sip at a time, others continuously: check with the participant. Wipe the participant’s mouth and face with a serviette after the drink.

Crockery and cutlery

Where a participant has difficulty in using conventional crockery and cutlery, aids may be used to help them eat independently. Often conventional cutlery is too heavy to hold or the handles are too narrow to enable an easy grip.

The devices and modifications that can be used include:

  • a plate with a raised edge or a food guard that fits around the plate and catches food spills to make it easier to get food onto the fork or spoon and avoids spills;
  • non-slip mats that prevent the platform moving around;
  • sponge rubber tubing or bicycle handle bar grips placed over cutlery handles; and
  • cutlery may be bent into a shape that is easier to use.

Ensure you gather as much information as possible, prior to the start of the program, to ensure mealtimes are a positive experience for both the participant and staff.