High-fiber foods will need to be strained after pureeing, and swapping ingredients can be essential. (A polenta pizza crust works well, whereas a traditional wheat flour crust does not). High-speed blenders are best for breaking down the cell walls of fruits and vegetables and liberating the nutrients within. Thickeners such as xanthan gum can be purchased either in gel or powder form; they allow liquids and purees to be thickened according to the patient’s ability to swallow, as determined by a speech-language pathologist.
Another tip for caregivers: Before cooking, bring ingredients, such as vegetables and fruits, into the patient, so they can see and smell them. Present the entire dish before it is pureed, as well. Prepare seasonal foods — the iconic dishes of summer, fall, winter, and spring. “Engage all their senses during meal preparation. Just because the form of the food has changed, doesn’t mean eating has to be boring and tasteless,” says Wolff.
Wolff isn’t the only food professional addressing dysphagia. Peter Morgan-Jones is executive chef at the HammondCare Foundation in Australia, which operates facilities for patients with dementia, aged, and palliative care needs. He has published three cookbooks for people who have trouble chewing and swallowing, or even using cutlery; his fourth — coauthored with palliative care specialist Roderick MacLeod of the University of Sydney — is forthcoming in late May. Many of his ingenious recipes draw on molecular gastronomy, utilizing whipping cream canisters to create “molecular foams” soaked in flavor but as light as air, dissolving on the tongue.
“I first tried a foam on my friend’s son, who had been on a feeding tube for eight years,” he explains. Morgan-Jones blended fresh strawberries and ice cream passed them through a strainer and added a binding agent. He then frothed the liquid into a foam. “I put the bubble on his tongue and though it was full of fragrance and flavor, it just disappeared without swallowing. His eyes lit up.”
Morgan-Jones utilizes thickening agents, such as agar-agar and xanthan gum, to create gels that can be easily consumed. He offers recipes for finger food since some individuals suffering from dementia, arthritis or neurological conditions have difficulty using cutlery. His ingenuity extends to beverages: vodka and tonic ice blocks, a jellied mulled-wine ice cube, and a jelled Scotch-on-the-rocks that can be consumed by dipping cotton swabs into the blend, freezing them and then sucking gently. “It’s a new way of having a favorite tipple,” he says.
Morgan-Jones believes the visual impression a food makes is essential: “If you present someone with dementia a bowl of orange mush, they won’t know if it’s pumpkin, carrot, or squash. But if you mold it into the shape of a carrot, or pour a puree of pear into a pear-shaped mold, it will look familiar.”
Using Morgan-Jones’ books, Peter Welfare, a HammondCare chef, created a chicken drumstick satay and a pureed fruit salad for a 51-year-old mother of two with early-onset dementia. She was living on ice cream, custard, and fruit, and was facing a possible feeding tube because of her difficulty eating. The pureed chicken was molded into the shape of drumsticks; similarly, the pureed fruit was set on yogurt and sculpted to look like the fruits themselves. “It was a smashing success. She ate it all,” reports Welfare.