Laughter is brightest, where food is best

Nutrition and hydration for students with disabilities is a complex issue which requires a personalised approach by everyone involved in their care. Here Dr Lara Rowlands, Parent Governor at National Star explores some of the issues that need to be considered, as well as explaining how she has supported National Star in enhancing its catering offer to students and long-term residents.

‘As a parent of a daughter with cerebral palsy and as a GP I am very aware of the importance that food and drink plays in our young adults’ lives.

I have an interest in health promotion as sadly, most of my NHS years were spent treating patients with problems that were directly related to poor nutrition and lifestyle. Therefore, I was very excited to be asked to work alongside National Star’s excellent team to help students choose the best nutrition to stay healthy

To quote Virginia Woolf: ‘One cannot think well, love well and sleep well if one has not dined well. ‘ 

Managing weight

Managing weight is a huge problem in this country, as we all know, and at the beginning of each year, we all relook at our own diets and exercise regimes. However, managing the weight and nutrition for people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities or both is even more important and unfortunately difficult.

Some people may be underweight, because their disability means they have difficulties with eating or swallowing or they have difficulty with certain or mixed textures. Staff need to understand the students’ needs for help with strict positioning when eating. 

Others may be overweight because they have a condition that increases their risk of obesity. Many adults with disabilities are very overweight as they are unable to exercise fully but spend more “downtime” by treating themselves to unhealthy snacks. Many become more physically disabled as increased weight makes their disability more difficult to overcome.


There are other health concerns our students face more than others too, which are directly related to nutrition such as constipation, reflux and indigestion to name but a few. These all need addressing.

This is a complex challenge; National Star students have a wide range of disabilities. We as parents chose National Star because the college address their educational needs individually whilst making their college life cohesive and fun. Tackling the wide range of challenges nutrition brings them is again a huge task but one which the college is eager to work with each student: not as a wide blanket offer but again tailor-made.

The logistics of this are difficult and complex but I was amazed to see how enthusiastic the management teams, chefs and therapists were to work together over the last few months to improve this service.  

Students preparing and enjoying food
We need to address the fact that food is seen not only as nutrition but also as a time of enjoyment and a pastime especially for those who cannot access many hobbies. Food can be a comfort to those eating and a display of love and care from those preparing.

Fluid intake

Fluid intake again, is a big problem for students with disabilities. Poor fluid intake, due to difficulty swallowing and sensory issues have important consequences on their concentration, physical hydration, body temperature control and constipation. We are looking at ways to encourage students to drink more water, or if they do not like plain water, using healthy ways of flavouring fluids. We are also looking at developing our own National Star water bottles that each student can feel proud to carry around site with them. This will also allow staff to easily measure how much they are actually drinking each day.

I have joined a team of staff at National Star and we have been meeting regularly, listening to parental concerns, setting parental and student surveys and analysing the information afterwards. Most parents feel anxious sending their able children off to university worrying about how they will manage to look after their health. Of course, we as parents of disabled students will have many more concerns. Talking to the team at National Star it is clear that the college take this very seriously and understand parents’ concerns.

Making healthy changes

We have looked at the nutritional value and textures of all meals and fluids offered on the menu. The catering staff have done wonders in making healthy changes. We have discussed the issues around portion control and that support staff need to encourage our students to make better choices and encourage them to drink plenty of fluids.

A students’ care team will often be led by a residence manager plus we also have key workers who know your child well and can ensure good healthy changes are implemented every day.

Parents know their child better than everyone and become experts in their child’s nutritional needs. If you are concerned that your child is not getting an ideal diet talk to residence managers, speech therapy teams and PLCs. They can work with the excellent nursing and catering team to monitor your child’s diet and monitor your child’s BMI and general health.’

Download to view the presentation on nutrition and hydration delivered at the Parent Support Forum

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