Hospital food patients want to eat
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org February 2, 2013 5:17PM
Comfort foods, like lasagna with fresh parsely garnish and breadstick, are among the menu options for patients at Community Hospital in Munster, Ind. Thursday January 24, 2013. The nutrition services department has updated its meals, including improved tray presentation for patients and more fresh ingredients and recipes. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:09AM
The term “hospital food” usually conjures up visions of drab-colored meat and overcooked vegetables, not to mention bland flavors. But looking around the prep line at Munster’s Community Hospital and you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling that.
Several bright white plates feature salads with vibrant red and yellow tomatoes, green snow peas and broccoli, and black olives mixed with fresh baby spinach and lettuces, and chicken breasts marinated with lemon and herbs. A healthier lasagna and pulled pork sandwich hold their own in the colorful display.
The salad is such a hit among patients that the hospital now hands out recipe cards.
“It’s a way to encourage them to cook at home something that’s healthy and delicious,” said clinical dietician Brian Chamness.
It’s part of the hospital’s yearlong journey to improve their food offerings by making them with fresh ingredients and more along the lines of something you would encounter in a restaurant, while following nutritional guidelines. Director of Nutrition Services Dan Jaehn started the ball rolling when he arrived at Community Hospital a little over a year ago, and the team of cooks, dieticians and buyers continue to tweak and improve the menu on a daily basis.
“When I got here, we were given the task of turning around the patient dining experience and we focused on the menu,” Jaehn said.
The team looked at combining comfort foods with newer dishes, using “fresh, crisp and cold” ingredients as much as possible in patient meals.
It’s a trend other hospitals are moving toward both as a way to compete for patients and to do well on a new patient satisfaction survey linked to the Affordable Care Act. The survey results are tied to 1 percent of a hospital’s Medicare reimbursement. Patients aren’t asked a specific question about food, but they are asked about the friendliness of the staff, cleanliness of the facility, noise level and general questions about customer service.
“It’s a way of improving the perception of the meals,” said Franciscan Alliance regional director for nutrition services Cathy Estes. “Even though there’s not a question about the food, it’s part of the experience. It’s the one thing a patient has control over — within dietary restrictions — while they’re being poked and prodded.”
Estes said Franciscan Alliance hospitals are looking to move toward a comfort food menu within the next six to nine months, along with sending a hostess cart with snacks and beverages to wings beyond the labor and delivery unit.
“The way we eat has changed,” Estes said. “Working within the guidelines, we’re looking at soup and half a sandwich or a wrap, not so much the great big meals as we’ve done in the past. When you’re sick, you think of grilled cheese or chicken noodle soup.”
Recently, Franciscan has made a change in uniforms for Food Service department employees. Rather than the typical hospital scrubs, they don black pants and red polo shirts when they deliver trays to the patient.
At Community, positive feedback on the menu rose dramatically since the changes went into effect. Community gets much of its feedback from the “patient rounding” process where employees talk with patients in their rooms about what they do or don’t like about the meals. Also, patients are sent surveys in the mail after they are discharged from the hospital. Jaehn said patient meal satisfaction has improved from 42 percent to 77 percent.
Color is key
And it’s all while improving the nutritional content of the meals they serve. Clinical manager Nancy Craft said the kitchen initially served two lasagna dishes — one very traditional with a rich meaty sauce and lots of cheese and one for modified diets. Surprisingly, patients preferred the healthier version, which meant less waste as well.
“The goal is always to not just provide food, but be part of the healing process,” Chamness said.
As the year has progressed, not all of the new recipes — an applewood-smoked salmon and an egg white flatbread sandwich — stayed on the menu.
“I like salmon, but not everybody does,” Craft laughed.
Certain new practices in the kitchen also mean that patients at the beginning of the two-hour meal service window will get the same quality meal at the end of the period. Operation manager Frank Gawel said cooks used to bake a large batch pork or fish servings as early as possible, but it’s harder to maintain a consistent product that way. Now, a number of servings are cooked every 12 minutes. Gawel said the process yields less waste as well.
Food buyer Bob Schau said he was concerned about the cost and waste when he heard about the changes in store, but he’s been surprised by the results.
“The goal of ‘color, crunch and cold,’ I don’t know if we always achieve that in the past,” Schau said. “Now, we can make an entree salad and it’s not just iceberg lettuce with a few pieces of carrots.”
Beyond the menu, the tray presentation got a makeover as well with bright white dishes and calming sage-colored cups and bowls. Jaehn said they were purchased together and not just a hodgepodge of tableware that popped up on previous trays. Even for patients on pureed foods, Jaehn said they tried to improve the look of the commonly beige foods by using orange or yellow ramekins.
Jaehn said the team is devoted to the process of continuous improvement, and the group does a daily taste test.
“It keeps the crew energized and on their toes, and if we see a glitch, we keep on constantly brainstorming to fix it,” he said. “We’ve built a sense of pride in our team and we’re proud of what we’ve done.”
Jaehn said the team has a goal of extending the new menu and presentation concept to the other hospitals in the Community Healthcare System — St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart.
“We’re working on that,” he said.