Dine Confidently: Tips for Eating with a Visual Impairment

A woman holds a mug of hot chocolate.

Photo by Royal National Institute of Blind People

Dining with others is a way to build community and share an intimate experience. As a person experiencing vision loss, you may have many questions about how to go about eating a meal with dignity and poise. In this article, we provide a variety of tips or suggestions that you can cater to meet your needs. Try one of them at your next dinner party or family meal.

Locate Food Using the Clock Reference System:

One way to tell where food is on the plate, or the location of other dishes around the plate, is to use the clock reference system. Think of your plate as a clock face with 12:00 at the edge furthest from you and 6:00 at the edge closest to you. The right side would be 3:00 and the left side 9:00. Fellow diners can help you identify where items are situated by using a reference to time location. If a piece of chicken was at the edge of the plate nearest to you, for example, someone would tell you it is at 6:00.

“It is easy for people to describe where food is on my plate once I explain this method to them,” says Council client Jean Loichinger. “I use the clock method to locate food on my plate and can use it to find the water glass and silverware, too.”

Eating Skills and Tips:

Two plates of eggs, salmon, lemon, bread and guacamole.

Photo by Healthline

  • If you have low vision, use high-contrast place settings for help in identifying tableware and food. Examples: Use a dark place mat with a light plate and cup. If serving darker foods, use a light-colored plate.
  • A tray or place mat can help you navigate your dining area. Any shape tray or mat works. When you first sit down, find the edge of the placemat or tray and gently move your fingers around the edge and inside the edge. You are then aware of the eating area and the dishes and utensils within that space. By keeping your fingers low to the table, you won’t bump anything over. At our Dining in the Dark events, we use a triangular napkin underneath the plate and set the water glass at the top of the triangle, silverware on the left and right, and the plate in the middle. Replacing items to their starting positions ensure you know where they are without asking someone.
  • Use a fork and tip of the knife to check the location and arrangement of the food on your plate periodically. Push food items back toward the center of the plate if they have gravitated outward toward the edges.
  • The tip of the knife can also give you an indication of the size of the meat or other food item that requires cutting.
  • The weight of the food on a fork or spoon can help indicate the size of the portion.
  • Solid foods, such as bread or mashed potatoes, can serve as a “buffer” or barrier to help push food onto the fork. You can also use a knife as a buffer.

“I have seen sighted people push food onto their silverware with a knife,” says Jean. “Everyone uses tricks like these; they might not even realize they are doing it.”

Cut Meat in Three Steps:

  1. Turn the plate so the meat is at the 6:00 position. Not reaching over other foods can make cutting easier.
  2. To cut meat, locate one edge of the meat with the knife and keep the knife there. Put the fork into the chop about a half inch from the knife edge and, starting at the edge, cut a small semicircle around the fork.
  3. Keep the knife at the edge of the meat while you eat the cut piece, and then repeat the process.

For Spreading and Serving:

  • Glide the knife blade lightly across the top of butter to get an idea of where to cut into it.
  • It is sometimes easier to use a spoon to spread, as in the case with peanut butter.
  • When eating family style, ask what dish you are receiving, and when you pass it on, also tell the next person what the dish is. This will remind the people at the table to identify the dishes.
  • When serving yourself, run fingertips around the top rim of the bowl to locate the serving spoon. If possible, place the serving dish on the table next to the plate. If not, hold the serving dish just above the plate and a bit to the side. This will make the transfer of food easier.

Salt, Pepper and Other Seasonings:

To help differentiate salt from pepper, take into account that the salt weighs more than the pepper, and they have different sounds when shaken. To control the flow of salt, shake some into your palm and explore the amount with a pinky finger. You can also pour salt into the palm and pinch a small amount onto food.

Liquid Pouring Techniques:

  1. Place an index finger over the rim of the cup or glass, extending the top portion of the finger into the cup or glass. Pour the liquid until you feel it contact the tip of your finger. Stop pouring as the liquid is about 1-inch from the rim. (Note: This technique is used with cold liquids only. For hot beverages, use a liquid level indicator—a device that makes noise when liquid touches it.)
  2. Before tipping a pitcher to pour, bring the pitcher spout up and touch it to the rim of the cup. Then tip the pitcher to pour.
  3. Listen for the sound of liquid as it enters, as well as for sound changes as the liquid reaches the rim.
  4. Wrap a hand around the cup or glass and feel for temperature changes as liquid level rises.

“I practiced a lot of these techniques under a blindfold as I was gradually losing my vision,” says Jean. “I would recommend everyone take the time to do this. I recently moved to an assisted living facility so I eat in public all the time now. Being able to eat with confidence has made me feel more comfortable.”

Products Available at the Council’s Sharper Vision Store:

A Liquid Level Indicator hangs on the edge of a coffee mug.

A liquid level indicator can be used at home or work so your mug does not overflow.

  • Liquid Level Indicator: Determines when liquid is within approximately one inch of the top of a container. Hang unit over lip of container; when liquid reaches height, a buzzer will sound. Item #HK500, $12.00; WCBlind.org/store/kitchen
  • Stress Less Drink Holder: Accommodates a variety of beverage containers from mugs and coffee cups, to glasses & tumblers. It has a built-in holder that fits most cups or glasses and a compartment for personal items like tea or sugar packets, a pen, or magnifier. Item# HK200, $14.50; WCBlind.org/store/kitchen
  • Food Bumper: If you tend to push food off of the plate before getting it on the utensil, a food bumper or raised edge plate may be helpful. The bumper is a white, plastic, hinged semicircle that clips to just inside the edge of a plate. Users can push against it to put food on a fork or spoon without the food falling off the plate. Item# HK210, $5.00; WCBlind.org/store/kitchen
  • Inner Lip Plate: This plate provides a firm edge to push the silverware or eating utensil against. Item# HK215, $7.50; WCBlind.org/store/kitchen

A hand holds a spoon that is scooping up pasta on an inner lip plate.

Inner lip plates can help keep food on the plate and off of the table.

Visit the Sharper Vision Store at 754 Williamson Street in Madison, go to our website at WCBlind.org/store, or call 800-783-5213 to talk about adaptive eating products.

Try these tips out at home, or at one of the Council’s upcoming Dining in the Dark events.

Guests with vision wear blindfolds while enjoying fresh, delicious food. Discussions follow the meal about the role of senses other than sight in the dining experience. All proceeds are donated to the Council. Make a reservation using the form at WCBlind.org/events/dining-in-the-dark/ or contact Lori at (608) 237-8114 by phone, email her at LWerbeckes@WCBlind.org.

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