Hospital Cafeterias Are Getting a Makeover

Having to spend a lot of time in the hospital is not fun, but it can be made even worse by bland food that’s barely edible. Luckily, hospitals have started to hire chefs with expertise in menu planning, fresh food sourcing, and making healthy meals delicious, and the results have been remarkable.

Some hospitals, like Seattle Children’s Hospital, have even partnered with local restaurants to offer gourmet take-out meals for patients and families that are a step above the frozen, processed fare offered in most cafeterias. Other hospitals, such as Northwell Health System (which runs 23 medical centers in New York) and UNC Rex Healthcare, have brought in a chef who earned a Michelin star while running the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in California to help transform their cafeterias.

But most hospitals still need to do a lot of work, especially when it comes to the cafeterias. Many hospitals serve up cheeseburgers, fried foods, sugary soda and drinks, cookies, and pre-packaged snacks that contain awful ingredients. And most patient meal options are too salty and high in saturated fat, which can make recovery even harder for sick people.

Hospital dietitians and staff know better than anyone that the way we eat plays a huge role in our overall health, but it’s hard to tell when you walk through a hospital cafeteria lined with junk food. It’s also difficult for people who have to stay in the hospital for a long period of time, often while recovering from surgery, to eat well on their own.

This is why more and more hospitals are hiring top-notch chefs to step in and make their cafeterias healthier places to eat. At the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, for example, a restaurant called The Point offers a five-course menu with dishes like sesame seared tuna, orange chicken and coconut shrimp, and mahimahi with shallot ginger glaze to both patients and the public.

A recent study by the Physicians Committee found that after hospitals adopted NYC’s Healthy Hospitals Food Standards, which include requiring leafy green salads, vinegar-based dressing, and four kinds of fruit every day, and banning deep-frying and all trans fats in cafeterias, most patient meals were more nutritious than before. The average patient meal had more fiber, less sodium and saturated fat, and more vitamins and minerals—but the most significant change was that more hospitals were serving a variety of healthy food options that were actually good to eat.

But not all hospitals have made these changes yet, and some have been lagging behind. To evaluate the progress of hospitals, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Center for Science in the Public Interest developed a rating system to measure how well hospitals were doing with the NYC guidelines. The system awards points for a variety of criteria, including offering proportionally priced half sandwiches (for people who want to limit their calories), limiting sugary sodas to fewer than 25 percent of total beverages, adding more fruit on the menu, providing calorie labeling in cafeterias, and offering nutrient-dense soups.