Have you ever been cooking at home and the delicious smell of the food makes your mouth water with anticipation?
Have you ever been out at a restaurant, seen your delectable meal arrive and just the look of it makes your stomach grumble louder?
This is our digestive system and more importantly our swallowing mechanism working even before the food reaches our mouth.
We know that swallowing is a complex and intricate process but sometimes we forget the importance of seeing and smelling food has on our swallowing.
Research has shown that the sensory input (seeing, smelling, and at times touching our foods or drinks) is critical for ‘priming’ and getting the swallowing structures ready.
Sensory input allows healthy saliva production which is critical to chew and breakdown our foods. It’s also critical during the eating and drinking process: we need intact sensory feedback whilst swallowing so our brain knows when the mouth is ready for the next mouthful and even to sense if there is any leftover food in the mouth that needs to be cleared.
So why is this so important to know and how can we use this wealth of knowledge in the real world?
Imagine for a moment, that you could no longer feed yourself and had to be dependent on someone else. Imagine if you were lying in bed, sleeping and suddenly someone turns on the lights, puts you upright and suddenly you have something in your mouth.
You can’t see or smell the food and you have no awareness that it’s even a mealtime.
Imagine how you would respond in this situation- you may spit out the food or not chew it at all.
This isn’t behavioural, rather it’s our bodies way of protecting itself.
We can help the consumers in our care, especially those with dysphagia or dementia have a more enriched and positive mealtime experience, simply by taking a few extra moments to set them up for success.
Practical steps to improve the sensory input and improve the mealtime experience:
- See if food can be cooked close to consumers where able so they can start smelling the food even before it reaches their plates.
- Have mealtimes in a dining room setting where able.
- Always have the food in front of the consumer so they can SEE and SMELL the food.
- Present the food so it’s visually pleasing especially for those on modified textured foods. Can you have the pureed carrots look like real cooked whole carrots, rather than an ice cream dollop on the plate?
- Have foods and drinks at either above or below room temperature (e.g. coffee warm not cold, ice cream provided cold)
- If someone has visual deficits and can’t see the food well, remember to talk through each moment of the meal (describe the meal, what is on the spoon you are providing)