Hospital Food and Nutrition – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Food and nutrition is a key aspect of health, especially for patients hospitalized for an extended time. While it’s not always easy to eat well when stuck in bed, the good news is that most hospitals offer a variety of foods and snacks that can help patients meet their nutritional needs.

It’s a common perception that the dreary monotony of hospital food is a result of restricted war-time rations, but that’s simply not true. Many hospitals are hiring chefs and bringing in menus that would make a fine dining restaurant blush. For example, at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan, one can order miso-glazed organic tofu on a bed of baby spinach with roasted artichokes for lunch.

The food at other hospitals is no less impressive. At Mercy, which has hospital locations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma, a patient can order food that would fit right in at a steakhouse: a grilled chicken breast with sauteed apples and walnuts, paella, or roasted Cajun salmon. Each meal is steam-cooked in the ward kitchen and only takes about three minutes from kitchen to bedside.

In addition to a range of delicious entrees, many hospitals also offer a variety of nutritious snacks and beverages. Some of the most popular are granola bars, crackers, canned fruit, juice, pretzels, popcorn, and protein shakes. Some even have “snack shops” that serve fast-food style take-out, which can be a morale boost for tired staff and patients.

While these healthy options can be helpful in addressing nutrient deficiencies, they don’t necessarily address some of the underlying reasons why people end up in the hospital in the first place. Malnutrition can be caused by a number of factors, including chronic disease, medications, and surgery. It’s important for hospitals to offer a wide range of food and drink choices so that all patients can find something they want to eat and can get the nutrients they need.

Increasingly, healthcare organizations are aligning their values with the food they buy, selecting ingredients that support local sourcing, environmental sustainability, equity and diversity, and more. This approach helps patients, staff, and visitors make healthier choices on a daily basis. Hospitals can set an example for the rest of society by ensuring all guests have access to delicious, nutritious foods and supporting a culture of health. In turn, patients can better manage their symptoms and recover.