If you’ve been ill, or have a friend or family member who has, you know that hospital food isn’t great. From mushy green stuff and Jell-O to frozen pizzas and fried chicken, the average hospital cafeteria mirrors standard American diet choices—processed meats, sugary beverages and snacks loaded with artificial sweeteners and chemicals.
That’s changing as hospitals bring in chefs who specialize in improving cafeterias and restaurants, making nutritious foods both palatable and delicious. Some examples include a CIA grad who runs the kitchen at Seattle Children’s Hospital; a chef from Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant at the Four Seasons in New York City; and Bruno Tison, who led the restaurant at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in California.
Hospitals that are serious about their patients’ health (as well as their staff and visitors) are bringing in these experts to help transform the hospital cafeteria into one that would rival any fine dining restaurant. These “stealth health” strategies don’t take away choices—like fries, burgers and comfort foods like mac and cheese—instead they make those offerings healthier by adding fresh ingredients that boost the flavor of a dish.
This approach is not only good for the patient’s long-term health, but it also enhances the dining experience and promotes staff wellbeing. In fact, a recent study showed that high-quality cafeteria food contributes to improved staff performance, lower absenteeism and a higher level of patient satisfaction.
Despite these positives, many hospitals struggle with food waste. The average hospital throws out 0.5 kilograms of food per week, or about two meals’ worth. It’s an issue that can be addressed by implementing digital menus that offer more options and eliminate the restrictions of printed menus – such as how much information can fit on a single page.
In addition to the reduced waste, using digital menus can improve food quality, offer more individualized choices, and provide greater accuracy. For example, if a patient wants to replace the meat in their dish with something else, the hospital can use their app to find a local source of protein that’s a suitable replacement.
The broader goal is to support patient recovery and reduce hospital readmissions by providing nutrient-dense meals that are tailored to each patient’s specific needs and goals. The hospital’s dining services team can work with dietitians and clinicians to create menus that will help patients recover from their illnesses, and get back on a healthy track as soon as possible.
A hospital’s menus can also offer the best of both worlds by incorporating some healthy treats from nearby restaurants and offering a variety of vegetarian dishes that can help a patient stay on a vegan or plant-based diet. Lastly, the cafeteria can offer a selection of grab-and-go options, such as fresh salads with protein-rich dressings or hearty vegetable soups that are designed to keep patients full and happy while they’re on their way home.