Asian stir fry. Chicken marsala. Spanish rice with black beans. These are familiar dishes that wouldn't normally raise an eyebrow—except they're appearing on hospital menus nationwide. The trend is gaining ground as more facilities turn their food service into haute cuisine—and doing so with health in mind.
Improving the nutritional quality of patient meals supports a hospital's underlying mission to heal, says Holly Emmons, food and nutrition manager at Union Hospital in Maryland. "As a hospital, we're supposed to do no harm," she says. "How can we safeguard people's health if we aren't feeding them food that's better for their bodies while they're with us?"
Union Hospital began working toward that goal in 2009. The facility now buys local, pesticide-free produce and puts those fruits and vegetables, as well as whole-grain pasta, on the menu to increase the fiber patients receive. Union also joined Health Care Without Harm's Balanced Menu Challenge to attack cardiovascular disease. The effort asks hospitals to replace 20 percent of the red meat they serve with poultry or fish.
Despite the expense of implementing changes, Emmons says she sliced her cost per meal from $0.83 in 2009 to $0.67 for the first half of 2011. She credits the savings to spending less on red meat and relying more on fresh produce.
Better food could become more important as Medicare ties reimbursement levels to patient-satisfaction scores. However, pleasing patients—while serving multigrain breads and lowering sodium content—is already a high priority for Seattle Children's Hospital.
"Better food is great, but if patients don't feel better about eating it, it's a bust," says Walter Bronowitz, executive chef at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Seeing a child who is battling nausea actually look forward to a meal and be able to eat it is a wonderful thing. The main goal for us is making our kids and their families happier."
To sustain the better-food push, Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., partners with the Culinary Institute of America, giving students firsthand health care food service experience, says Executive Chef Anthony Fischetti. Chefs-in-training observe food preparation and work with hospital nutritionists and dietitians to learn how to make meals that meet different health needs while still maintaining flavor.
"These students are programmed to think of restaurants and catering halls," Fischetti says. "Working with us, they learn how to create quality food for people who often have strict dietary limitations."