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The Evolution of Hospital Food – From Bland to Healthy and Delicious

Updated: Sep 17, 2023


I have previously discussed how the foods served to our children in schools are not conducive to learning, but what about the foods served in hospitals? Are the foods served in hospitals providing the nutrients your body needs and helping your body heal?

When thinking about the types of foods served in hospitals, does green Jello or pudding cups come to mind? For some reason, I have visions of some sort of meatloaf, mashed potato-like substance, and army green peas swimming in a bath of non-descript gravy. And what about those plastic trays, plastic water pitchers, and plastic plates? Is this image one of health and healing?


What about vending machines offering candy bars, powdered donuts, greasy chips, or sugar-sweetened beverages? Will these help your body heal? Will these help your healthcare providers be healthy if they grab a snack on the go?


Most, if not all hospitals and hospital systems across our country employ registered dieticians, but when it comes to planning the hospital menu, it seems that many do not have a say in what their patients receive for proper nutrition and healing. There seems to be a disconnect between a hospital as a place of healing and the foods they serve as being full of sugar, processed carbohydrates, and saturated fat. These types of foods have been linked to the very chronic conditions they are treating.


Hospitals are a great place to model healthy eating, but many are still offering unhealthy or unappealing options. For many patients, a visit to the local hospital can serve as a wake-up call that they need to make significant changes in their lives. But, when their meal tray arrives, it looks like the same thing they eat at home (or worse). How is this promoting a change in behavior for the patient? How is this offering their body the fundamental tools it needs to heal?


One hospital system in Israel employed a new position of a “food science dietician” in 9 hospitals and another 9 kept things business as usual (control). They discovered by employing this position and training the kitchen staff to prepare healthier meals that the hospital reduced food waste, reduced cost, and improved communication between the medical staff and the food preparation in the kitchen. Patients also noted improved taste and variety of foods served.


In New York City, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene developed the Health Hospital Food Initiative (HHFI) to improve the quality of foods served in the hospital system. They developed mandatory standards of nutrition for patient meals as well as vending machines. The hospitals themselves also voluntarily adopted the same standards for their cafeterias and café’s inside the hospital. As the New York hospitals transitioned to a more whole-food plant-based menu for patients and staff, they started noticing a decrease in the cost per meal, increased patient satisfaction scores, and improved wellbeing for their staff members.


The nutrition staff were specially trained to work with each patient based on dietary preferences, nutritional needs, and cultural influences to offer whole-food plant-based options first. If that option was dismissed by the patient, a second or a third whole-food plant-based option was offered. A patient had to specifically ask for a meat or dairy product to be included in their meal. Most patients opted for one of the whole-food plant-based options offered and feedback surveys indicated they were usually pleased with their choices.


Another step the New York Hospital system took was to use white China plates instead of plastic to serve meals whenever possible. This can reduce the plastics that can leach into the food and ultimately into our bodies. It also improved the morale of the patients. According to the patients, it felt more like a hotel stay than hospital stay. Improved mood has been shown to reduce healing time in patients.


Compared to the Standard American Diet and other omnivorous diets, whole-food plant-based diets have been shown to reduce risk factors for chronic diseases like decreased BMI and waist circumference, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, inflammation, and blood pressure. These all sound like wonderful things that can help your body heal faster. Whole-food plant-based diets are rich in whole-grains, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.



If you are a healthcare professional working in a hospital system that does not put whole-food plant-based nutrition as the default, start making inquiries and use some of my references to bring this to the attention of your administrators. If necessary, use the data that show a reduced cost of meals (the CEOs and CFOs like that sort of information). Find Registered Dieticians and other healthcare providers who are certified in Lifestyle Medicine to be allies for your cause. Don’t we owe it to the patients to offer healthy food in the hospital that can help to heal your patients?


There is also a company called Universal Meals that are a great way to get started incorporating whole-food plant-based nutrition without the common allergens. This is a great way for hospital systems, corporations, or school systems to bring whole-food plant-based nutrition scaled to larger groups.


If you are a patient and find yourself in the hospital, ask for whole-food plant-based meals to help your body heal. If they don’t know what you are talking about, ask them to investigate the New York City Hospital System or Universal Meals. Then, ask to speak to a registered dietician to help you choose the whole-food plant-based foods that are offered in their hospital.


If you would like to know more about this or other topics, please contact me at info@dramyknaperek.com.


Start your journey to a healthier, more balanced life with PIVOT Integrative Consulting, LLC.



References:

Aggarwal M, Grady A, Desai D, Hartog K, Correa L, Ostfeld RJ, Freeman AM, McMacken M, Gianos E, Reddy K, Batiste C, Wenger C, Blankstein R, Williams K, Allen K, Seifried RM, Aspry K, Barnard ND. Successful Implementation of Healthful Nutrition Initiatives into Hospitals. Am J Med. 2020 Jan;133(1):19-25. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.08.019. Epub 2019 Sep 5. PMID: 31494109.


Champ CE, Iarrobino NA, Haskins CP. Data of unhealthy food availability in hospitals. Data Brief. 2018 Nov 3;21:1738-1744. doi: 10.1016/j.dib.2018.10.084. PMID: 30505909; PMCID: PMC6249542.


Craig WJ, Mangels AR, Fresán U, Marsh K, Miles FL, Saunders AV, Haddad EH, Heskey CE, Johnston P, Larson-Meyer E, Orlich M. The Safe and Effective Use of Plant-Based Diets with Guidelines for Health Professionals. Nutrients. 2021 Nov 19;13(11):4144. doi: 10.3390/nu13114144. PMID: 34836399; PMCID: PMC8623061.


Moran A, Krepp EM, Johnson Curtis C, Lederer A. An Intervention to Increase Availability of Healthy Foods and Beverages in New York City Hospitals: The Healthy Hospital Food Initiative, 2010-2014. Prev Chronic Dis. 2016 Jun 9;13:E77. doi: 10.5888/pcd13.150541. PMID: 27281392; PMCID: PMC4900821.


Moran A, Lederer A, Johnson Curtis C. Use of Nutrition Standards to Improve Nutritional Quality of Hospital Patient Meals: Findings from New York City's Healthy Hospital Food Initiative. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Nov;115(11):1847-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.07.017. Epub 2015 Aug 28. PMID: 26320410.


Storz MA. Should plant-based hospital meals be the law? An American experience. Hosp Pract (1995). 2020 Dec;48(5):241-243. doi: 10.1080/21548331.2020.1807756. Epub 2020 Aug 30. PMID: 32767904.


Trang S, Fraser J, Wilkinson L, Steckham K, Oliphant H, Fletcher H, Tzianetas R, Arcand J. A Multi-Center Assessment of Nutrient Levels and Foods Provided by Hospital Patient Menus. Nutrients. 2015 Nov 11;7(11):9256-64. doi: 10.3390/nu7115466. PMID: 26569294; PMCID: PMC4663594.


Yona O, Goldsmith R, Endevelt R. Improved meals service and reduced food waste and costs in medical institutions resulting from employment of a food service dietitian - a case study. Isr J Health Policy Res. 2020 Feb 3;9(1):5. doi: 10.1186/s13584-020-0362-0. PMID: 32014056; PMCID: PMC6998356.


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