Healthcare menu makeovers balance comfort, quality

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As consumers grow ever more demanding and the crucial connection between food and health draws more attention, many hospitals and nursing facilities are retooling patient and visitor menus. Menus are shifting and giving way to thoughtful approaches that address both current consumer preferences and health concerns.

In healthcare settings, perhaps more than any other place, food takes on an outsized role. Hospital patients and senior residents crave familiar comfort foods that provide a connection to their normal everyday lives. At the same time, many of them are also driven by health concerns.

Technomic’s 2018 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report found that 53% of consumers crave transparency from foodservice providers. They want to see breakdowns of items like sodium, sugar, fat content and calories to help them make informed decisions. And more of them are seeking out functional foods—those with specific nutritional benefits—than were doing so two years ago.

According to the 2018 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, taste and price are the first considerations driving food and beverage purchases. The next most important factor, familiarity, is followed by healthfulness, convenience and sustainability.

Healthcare foodservice operators have addressed these preferences in different ways.

Hospitals across the country, aiming to set an example for the community, have created their own gardens and forged relationships with local farmers to source fresh produce. The strategy targets two considerations—healthfulness and sustainability—while ensuring plates are filled with fresh ingredients. Healthcare facilities have also embraced green practices, such as composting to reduce food waste and oil recycling.

Virginia Mason Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle is a leader in the movement, purchasing nearly 40% of its food locally and stressing its strong commitment to recycling and composting.

At Pennswood Village, an assisted living community in Newtown, Pa., “stealth health” moves to cut sodium and fat from meals were just a start. More recently, the facility, addressing the need for transparency, started disclosing place of origin for all proteins and produce, and information about how animals were slaughtered. Transparency also extended to salad dressings, which now are made in house with fewer than half the ingredients found in the commercial products they replaced.

Retreat Doctors’ Hospital in Richmond, Va., reinvented hospital-style food by introducing new cooking techniques, relying more on fresh ingredients and incorporating the judicious use of herbs. But many of the dishes on the revamped menu—turkey breast with mashed potatoes and roasted baby carrots, or a healthy variation on meatloaf with a low-sodium broth in place of heavy gravy, for instance—still satisfy patients’ desire for comfort foods.

In California, even strict vegetarians will have a better chance of finding their favorite comfort foods on hospital menus. A state law enacted last year requires hospitals, healthcare properties and prisons to provide vegan options at every meal. It’s the outcome of recommendations by the American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology that encourages hospitals to support the health of patients, staff and visitors by providing plant-based options.

Providing healthcare patients and residents with the familiar foods they crave while addressing health, sustainability and other concerns is a delicate balancing act, but one that more institutions are navigating successfully. By using fresh ingredients, local produce and proteins and using sustainable practices for tasks like oil management, diners get the high quality food they’re after while healthcare facilities get the satisfaction of being able to provide superior products

This post is sponsored by Restaurant Technologies