Hospital Food That’s Good
By Erin Howe
At The Scarborough Hospital, fresh, appetizing food is what the doctor ordered.
Vegetable frittata made with fresh eggs from Lyn, Ontario. Banana bread baked in-house, from scratch and by hand. Channa masala made with locally sourced ingredients. A steaming bowl of congee, the Chinese comfort food.
These aren’t examples of average hospital food. They’re freshly prepared meals featuring local ingredients and culturally diverse choices. And they’re menu options for people receiving care at The Scarborough Hospital’s (TSH) General Campus.
“The food they receive today is very much what you would experience in a good cafeteria where you would have food prepared to your expectations with care,” says Dr. Tom Chan (MD, ’93), Chief of Staff at TSH. “The food is more palatable and much healthier than what many people traditionally think of as hospital food.”
Three years ago, TSH launched ReFRESHing our Menu, a year-long project to improve the food being served to patients, supported by the Greenbelt Fund. The hospital did away with much of the outsourced frozen products and focused on preparing fresher, healthier and more appetizing food for people receiving care at the facility, and using local ingredients where possible.
A patient’s experience and environment in the hospital can have a positive impact on their outcomes, says Chan. Although this idea hasn’t been studied much, common sense dictates that advantages like windows with pleasant views or comfortable temperatures can play a role in helping people feel better, he says. And the same can be said for food.
“We all like to complain about the food that we receive on airlines because we really have no choice — that’s the food that’s there. And this is what happened with hospitals,” says Chan. “When you show up to the hospital, you’re expecting to be served lukewarm tea, jello pudding or the gelatinous goo that we used to serve our patients in plastic containers. Nobody ever looked forward to a meal like that.”
Chan remembers the time he got to eat patient food from the new ReFRESHing our Menu initiative — a beef curry dish served during the hospital’s accreditation process. The evaluators were served from the same menu the patients were eating from that day — to rave reviews.
“Members of our kitchen staff talk with patients, and sometimes their families, to choose what they would like from our menu,” says Rhonda Seidman-Carlson (MN ’99), Vice-President of Interprofessional Practice and Chief Nursing Executive at TSH.
The hospital has seen its food waste drop by nearly a quarter since the ReFRESHing our Menu initiative and bedside ordering were launched, although Seidman-Carlson is careful to point out the positive results can’t be attributed to any single initiative. TSH’s patient satisfaction scores regarding food — generally the lowest score on hospital satisfaction surveys — have also risen.
“Fresher food looks more appealing, and if it doesn’t have to come a long distance to reach people’s plates, the aromas, texture and taste are all enhanced,” says Seidman-Carlson. “And when you have people on certain medications or receiving treatments that make it difficult for them to appreciate those things, the more we can do to make their meals fresher, more aromatic and appealing, the more we can help their ability and their desire to eat.”
“The cultural understanding is that hospital food is as cheap as possible and that nobody’s excited about it. But it persists,” says chef Joshna Maharaj, the good-food advocate who led the menu overhaul at TSH and has worked with other Toronto hospitals. “Nobody questions the cost of drugs or the cost of the surgery; if that’s what somebody needs to get better, that’s what they get. Yet we nickel and dime the food so painfully and completely miss the potential for food to help people recover when they’re sick.”
We nickel and dime the food so painfully and completely miss the potential for food to help people recover.
A person recovering from surgery or infection needs a lot of calories, says Chan. That’s why it’s so important to make sure patients get the nutrition their bodies require while they’re in hospital.
Balancing the dietary needs of a large group of people with varying therapeutic needs is no piece of cake. For example, Chan says people being treated for renal failure don’t handle protein or some minerals very well. Cardiac patients often need low-salt diets. Factor in allergies or religious requirements and the result is a smorgasbord of challenges.
For some hospitals, there are physical barriers to providing patients with from-scratch cooking. Maharaj says in some cases, increasingly crowded hospitals may have had to surrender their kitchen space for other uses.
“Food isn’t anybody’s top priority,” says Maharaj. “And so it doesn’t get the attention and resourcing that it really needs.”
Another obstacle is that the standard reheated food is easy to plate and serve. In most cases, fresh, local food also means raw ingredients that need to be prepared — like peeling onions and potatoes — and a need for more kitchen staff. But Maharaj says it’s worth the effort.
“We had food to cure us and heal us before we had medication,” she says.