A spicy Indian soup topped with chickpeas was the winning dish of an Iron Chef-inspired cooking competition held at NYU’s Steinhardt School. But instead of chefs, the competitors were 10 speech-language pathology students and 10 nutrition students who were creating food for patients with dysphagia.
Dysphagia was the focus of an interdisciplinary elective course designed to teach students about the complex needs patients with difficulty swallowing in eating and drinking. The course was taught by Erin Embry, associate director of the master’s program in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, and Lisa Sasson, clinical associate profressor of nutrition and food studies.
“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 feel really comfortable and exposed to working with a team,” said Embry.
“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.”
The course turned theory into practice when groups of students were assigned to case studies of semi-fictional patients with dysphagia – for example, a teenager with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, or an older adult who had a stroke.
The teams reviewed 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 “Dysphasia 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 dishes. They ultimately chose curried soup prepared for an older adult from India who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was limited to a Dysphagia Level 1 Diet, or pureed diet. 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.
Steinhardt’s January term Dysphagia courses have 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 Sasson.
“Sometimes that’s the one thing they look forward to all day,” she said.