Medical professionals often prescribe special diets to help people recover from certain medical procedures or bouts of illness.

Soft diets are commonly used in the clinical setting and include foods that are soft and easy to digest.

If you are prescribed a soft diet, you may wonder what foods you should eat and avoid and why you were put on this diet in the first place.

This article explains everything you need to know about soft food diets. 

What is a soft food diet and why is it prescribed?

Soft food diets consist of soft, easily digestible foods and are prescribed to people who can’t tolerate normally textured or highly seasoned foods.

Healthcare providers commonly prescribed these diets to people with certain medical conditions or who are recovering from surgery.

Soft food diets are used in many settings, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, and in the home. They’re typically followed for short periods of a few days to a few weeks, though some circumstances may require the diet to be followed for a longer period.

Soft diets are often used to treat swallowing disorders, collectively known as dysphagia. Dysphagia is common in older adults and those with neurological disorders and neurodegenerative diseases (1, 2). 

In 2002 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published the National Dysphagia Diet (NDD), which includes several levels of dysphagia diets (3, 4):

  • NDD Level 1 — Dysphagia-Puréed: uniform texture, pudding-like, requiring very little chewing ability
  • NDD Level 2 — Dysphagia-Mechanically Altered: cohesive, moist, semisolid foods, requiring some chewing
  • NDD Level 3 — Dysphagia-Advanced: soft foods that require more chewing ability
  • Regular: all foods allowed

Although the point of texture-modified diets is to reduce the risk of aspiration and pneumonia in people with dysphagia, current research suggests that modifying food texture may result in a worsened quality of life and undernutrition, highlighting the need for more research (2).

In addition to dysphagia, soft diets are prescribed to people who have recently undergone mouth or jaw surgery that has affected their ability to chew. 

For example, people who have undergone wisdom teeth removal, major jaw surgery, or dental implant surgery may need to follow a soft diet to promote healing (5).

Soft diets are also used as transitional diets between full liquid or puréed diets and regular diets in people who have undergone abdominal surgery or are recovering from gastrointestinal illness to allow the digestive system to heal more effectively (6).

Additionally, soft diets can be prescribed to people who are too weak to consume regular foods, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, as well as to people who have lost feeling in their face or mouth or can’t control their lips or tongue due to a stroke (7).

Although soft food diets used in both the clinical and home setting can vary, most that are used in the short term are low in fiber and bland to ease digestibility and the comfort of the person eating the diet (8). 

Keep in mind that some people have to be on soft food diets for longer periods. In these cases, the diet may be higher in fiber and more flavorful than soft diets used in the short term. 

summary

Soft diets consist of foods that are easily chewed and digested. They’re often prescribed to people with swallowing difficulties, those who have undergone abdominal surgery, and people with other medical issues.

Foods to eat on a soft food diet 

Soft diets are used when regular-textured or highly seasoned foods can’t be tolerated, which can happen for a number of reasons. 

Soft diets should not be confused with puréed diets. Although puréed foods are allowed on soft food diets, puréed diets are entirely different. 

Overall, soft diets should consist of foods that are soft, as well as easy to eat and digest. 

Here are some examples of foods that can be enjoyed on most soft diets (7, 8):

  • Vegetables: soft cooked carrots, green beans, chopped cooked spinach, cooked zucchini without seeds, well-cooked broccoli florets, etc.
  • Fruits: cooked, peeled apples or applesauce, bananas, avocado, peeled ripe peaches, cooked pears, puréed fruits, etc.
  • Eggs: cooked whole eggs or egg whites, egg salad
  • Dairy products: cottage cheese, yogurt, soft cheeses, pudding, frozen yogurt, etc. Lower fat dairy products are typically recommended for people recovering from gastrointestinal surgery or illness. 
  • Grains and starches: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cooked cereals like cream of wheat, soft, moistened grains such as farro or barley, moistened pancakes, soft noodles, etc.
  • Meat, poultry, and fish: finely chopped or ground moistened poultry, soft tuna or chicken salad (without chopped raw vegetables or fruit like celery or apples), baked or broiled fish, soft meatballs, soft tofu, etc. 
  • Soups: puréed or broth-based soups with soft-cooked vegetables
  • Miscellaneous: gravies, sauces, smooth nut butters, unseeded jellies and jams 
  • Drinks: water, tea, protein shakes, and smoothies 

Keep in mind that there are different variations of soft food diets, depending on the condition they’re being used to treat. Some people with further restrictions may not be able to tolerate certain foods for various reasons. 

Therefore, it’s always best to consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if you’re following a soft diet and have questions about what foods you’re permitted to eat.

summary

Cooked fruits and vegetables, easily chewable proteins, and soft starches can be enjoyed when following a soft food diet.

Foods to avoid on a soft food diet 

Many foods should be avoided when following a soft food diet. Hard to digest foods, as well as those that are tough to chew, should be restricted. Typically, spicy and very acidic foods are also off-limits. 

The following foods are commonly restricted on soft diets (7, 8):

  • Vegetables: raw vegetables, deep-fried vegetables, vegetables with seeds or rinds
  • Fruits: fresh fruits (with some exceptions like avocados and bananas), fruits with peels and seeds, dried fruits, highly acidic fruits like lemons and limes
  • Dairy products: hard cheeses, cheeses with nuts or dried fruit in them, yogurt with added ingredients, such as chocolate or nuts
  • Grains and starches: hard crackers, chewy or crusty breads, high fiber breads and grains, such as seeded breads and shredded wheat, French fries, popcorn 
  • Meat, poultry, and fish: tough cuts of meat, fried fish or poultry, whole cuts of meat or poultry, high fat processed meats, such as bacon, shellfish, soups or stews with tough chunks of meat 
  • Fats: nuts, seeds, coconut flakes, crunchy nut butters
  • Miscellaneous: seeded jams or jellies, chewy candies
  • Spicy or irritating foods: hot peppers, tomato sauce, gas-promoting foods, such as cabbage and beans, tabasco sauce
  • Beverages: alcohol, caffeinated beverages may be restricted as well depending on the condition being treated

Note that your healthcare provider may recommend further restrictions depending on your medical condition. It’s important to have a good understanding of the diet that’s prescribed and your individual dietary needs.

summary

Foods that are difficult to chew and digest, as well as spicy and acidic foods, should typically be avoided when following a soft food diet.

Soft food diet meal and snack ideas  

Following any restrictive diet can be frustrating, especially when many healthy foods like raw fruits and vegetables are off-limits.

Still, there are many tasty meal and snack options for those following soft diets.

Here are some ideas for meals that can be eaten by people following soft diets:

Breakfast ideas

  • scrambled eggs and sliced avocado
  • cream of wheat topped with cooked peaches and creamy cashew butter
  • crustless quiche made with eggs, goat cheese, minced spinach, and butternut squash
  • yogurt parfait made with unsweetened yogurt, banana or canned peaches, seedless blueberry jam, and smooth almond butter

Lunch ideas

  • chicken or tuna salad made without vegetables
  • chicken soup with soft noodles, cooked veggies, and small bits of tender, shredded chicken
  • couscous, feta, and soft vegetable salad
  • moist salmon burger with avocado

Dinner ideas

  • meatloaf made with ground beef or tofu alongside mashed sweet potatoes
  • broiled flounder with soft-cooked beets and carrots or cheesy mashed potatoes
  • soft chicken and rice with cooked green beans 
  • shepherds pie made with ground turkey

In addition to meals, many people following a soft diet may want to include one or more snacks throughout the day. 

Some snack ideas include:

  • cottage cheese with cooked or soft canned fruit
  • yogurt with cooked peeled apples and cinnamon
  • vegetable and grain soup
  • well-blended smoothies made with protein powder, smooth nut butter, and fruit
  • egg salad made with mashed avocado
  • moist pumpkin or banana bread with smooth almond butter
  • puréed vegetable soups, such as butternut squash soup
  • banana boats with smooth natural peanut butter

It’s important that all meals and snacks be as balanced as possible and include high protein foods, especially for those who have recently undergone surgery or have higher nutrient needs, such as those with cancer (9, 10).

summary

It’s possible to consume healthy and tasty meals and snacks when following a soft diet. Meals and snacks should be nutrient-rich to promote healing and overall health. 

Helpful tips for people on soft diets  

Although consuming a diet consisting of only soft foods can be difficult, the following tips may make following such a diet easier (7, 8):

  • Choose healthy options. While soft, sugar-laden foods like cakes and pastries may seem appealing, ensuring you’re consuming healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, and proteins is best for your health. Choose a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
  • Season your food. Using herbs and other mild seasonings can help make food more palatable.
  • Focus on protein. Adding protein to every meal and snack is especially important for people recovering from surgery and those who are malnourished.
  • Eat small, consistent meals. Rather than consuming large meals, it’s recommended to consume multiple small meals throughout the day when following a soft diet.
  • Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Taking your time while eating and chewing food thoroughly is important for many people on soft diets, including those recovering from abdominal surgery and with neurological conditions. Sit upright and take small sips of liquid between bites.
  • Plan meals ahead of time. Finding meals that work with a mechanical soft diet can be difficult. Planning meals ahead of time can help reduce stress and make mealtime easier.
  • Keep appliances handy. Blenders, strainers, and food processors can be used to create delicious, soft-diet-approved recipes.

Typically, soft diets are used as transitional diets for short periods until a person is ready to start eating a regular-consistency diet again. 

Your healthcare provider will give you instructions on how long you should follow a soft food diet, while a registered dietitian can provide you with any other pertinent information.

If you have any questions or concerns about following a soft food diet or how to transition back to a regular-consistency diet, ask your medical provider for advice. 

summary

Choosing nutritious foods, focusing on protein, planning ahead, eating small meals frequently, and taking your time while eating are all smart tips for people following soft food diets. 

The bottom line

Healthcare providers commonly prescribe soft food diets to help people recover from surgery and illness and make chewing and digesting food easier.

When following a soft food diet, it’s important to choose soft, easily digestible foods and avoid foods that are hard to chew or digest. Spicy and potentially irritating foods should likewise be avoided.

Although a soft food diet can be difficult to follow, it’s used to promote recovery, so it’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and comply until you’re ready to transition back to a regular diet.