NYU Steinhardt News

In ADVANCE: SLP & Nutrition students compete in cooking competition for dysphagia

As appeared in ADVANCE

NYU speech-language pathology students compete in cooking competition for patients with difficulty swallowing

A spicy Indian soup topped with pureed chickpeas was the winning dish of an Iron Chef-inspired cooking competition held at New York University. But instead of chefs, the competitors were 10 speech-language pathology students and 10 nutrition students.

Dysphagia is the focus of an interdisciplinary elective course designed to teach students about the complex needs that patients with difficulty swallowing face in eating and drinking.

"The primary objective of this course is for students to have interdisciplinary clinical training. This is really important so that when they go out and do this work, they will be exposed to and feel really comfortable working with a team," said Erin Embry, MS, CCC-SLP, associate director of the master's program in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at NYU Steinhardt and one of the course's professors.

"When students are looking at a patient, they shouldn't be looking at it from their own 'bubble,' foregoing the importance of good nutrition and really tasty food, even though the patient might have limited diet textures," Embry said.

Tough Challenge
The course turned theory into practice when groups of students were assigned to case studies of semi-fictional patients with dysphagia, e.g., a teenager with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, or an older adult whom has had a stroke.

The teams reviewed modified barium swallows for their cases to measure the degree of difficulty their patients had when swallowing, and then determined the consistency of liquids and foods that could be tolerated. During the final class on Jan. 22, the groups competed head-to-head for the title of "Dysphagia Iron Chef." 

The teams were tasked with preparing meals suitable for the patients in their cases, taking into account their swallowing, nutritional and medical needs, as well as cultural and personal preferences. Their challenge, which was not a small one, was to create appetizing food that met these criteria.

The six judges, including a speech-language pathologist, nutritionist, physiatrist, reality cooking show producer, and celebrated chef, deliberated over five delicious dishes.

Ultimately, the judges chose a curried soup prepared for an older adult from India who was suffering from Alzheimer's and was limited to a Dysphagia Level 1 Diet, which is a diet of pureed food. The team creatively topped the spicy soup with chickpeas that had been cooked, pureed, and reformed using a thickener, which helped to bring an aesthetic quality to the dish that the patient had been missing in his nursing home's food.

"In collaborating with nutritionists, doctors, and psychologists to make a treatment plan, and by learning about the client from these perspectives, I came to see him as a whole person and not just as a patient on a piece of paper," said Megan Savage, MS, a PhD candidate in communicative sciences and disorders at NYU Steinhardt, and a member of the winning team. "This experience really highlighted to me the kind of clinician that I want to be-the kind who sees the person first, and the patient second," she said

Importance of Food
Following a previous dysphagia course, the menus and food presented in the cooking competition inspired NYU Langone Medical Center's patient food services to implement changes in the hospital's menu, including adding new recipes and improving the food's presentation.

"Food is nurturing, and too often it's assumed that when someone is sick we should just give them calories and nutrients. That's not what food is, and we wanted to emphasize in this course that regardless of a medical condition, we should always think about the importance of food - especially when someone's sick," said Lisa Sasson, MS, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU Steinhardt and the course's other professor.

"Sometimes that's the one thing they look forward to all day."