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A Prescription for Satisfying Hospital Food

Health & Wellness |  9.18.2018

If you’ve ever been admitted to a hospital, you may remember certain things about your stay: the team who treated you, the view from your bedside window, the beeps and hums of medical equipment. But do you remember anything about what you ate?

“We believe hospital food deserves to be memorable,” states Sharron Lent, RDN, LD, who oversees program development for our patient dining and clinical nutrition. “These meals are no afterthought. They are a necessary part of the recovery process and critical to the overall hospital experience.”

Consider for a moment the complexity of patient dining. A hospital serves hundreds of admitted patients at any given time. They span all ages and most require specialized diets. Patients may be in the hospital for 24 hours or for weeks. And they can order meals in a variety of ways, including round-the-clock room service that allows them to request whatever they’re in the mood for, whenever they want it.

Much goes into developing, preparing and serving these meals, but in the end, it comes down to consumer satisfaction. It’s a key evaluation point that can influence post-discharge survey results and even hospital rankings. “And the longer patients stay, the more their meals matter to them,” Lent adds.

Drawing on 30 years of experience with Aramark, she shares how we approach this with our healthcare clients.

turkey wrap

Appetizing meals with fresh, healthy ingredients are one of the surefire ways to encourage patients to fuel their recovery.

Recipes to Nourish and Help Heal

Patients may not always realize it, but a hospital menu does more than curb hunger. It helps them heal their wounds, gain strength and avoid infections. According to Hospital & Health Networks Magazine, nutrition intervention can reduce avoidable readmissions by 28% and average length of stay by two days. “If you don’t eat, you don’t get the proper nutrition you need, and it can compromise health and recovery,” explains Lent.

As one of the largest employers of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs), we provide our teams with resources to help them stay abreast of current research and deliver superior clinical nutrition. Our RDNs ensure each patient receives the right type of food, adjust as necessary over their stay, and assist in identifying cases of malnutrition—a serious yet underdiagnosed problem associated with poor outcomes and higher medical costs, according to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

One patient may be on a heart-healthy diet for cardiovascular disease, while the person next door needs a consistent-carbohydrate diet to help manage diabetes. In another wing, a child may be limited to clear liquids before surgery, while their roommate could have a food allergy. 

We fine-tune our menus for such needs—our core program begins with 19 diet types for adults and 17 for pediatric patients. These meal plans are developed using standards set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to align with current dietary guidelines. We also follow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) standards for regulatory compliance. 

To create hospital-specific menus, our clients can draw additional menu items from our bank of more than 1,600 recipes. The templates may be adapted for different delivery models, including 1, 2, or 3-week cycle menus where patients receive meals at predetermined times, and room service where food is freshly prepared on demand, like in a hotel setting. All patients, whether they follow a restricted diet or not, are offered healthful choices, as we analyze each recipe for 26 nutrients plus 65 food allergens. 

As Lent puts it, “The entire make-up of each meal makes a big impact. There are so many elements to consider in this setting; we are truly personalizing every meal we serve.”

Variety to Meet Patient Tastes and Client Needs

For all this investment in nutrition, we never lose sight of one fact: patients look forward to meals as a welcome distraction from their surroundings. “Our process starts with both consumer and patient insights,” explains Lent. “We ask them what they want to experience bedside.”

To develop our new Treat Yourself menu, we went straight to the source and surveyed nearly 400 former patients about their meal experiences. Feedback in hand, we taste-tested meal concepts around the country before launch. A similar strategy went into creating Little Treats & Tasty Eats, our menu for pediatric patients.


Little Treats & Tasty Eats breakfasts mirror what the patient might enjoy in the comforts of their own home. 

From this research, we gleaned that patients want to enjoy delicious, on-trend food just like they would outside of the hospital. “After all, food preferences don’t suddenly change because someone is in a hospital bed,” Lent says.

This is where the power of choice, familiar-yet-bold flavors and meal preparation make all the difference. Our research tells us adults under 45 gravitate toward items such as smoothies, pizza and wraps, while older adults tend to value entrées, soups and salads. The kid crowd looks for recognizable, name-brand options that they can put their stamp on with toppings and sauces—and if we can make it fun with colored plates and other touches, all the better. And everyone appreciates when food’s texture is on-point; it can actually be as important as flavor.

The newest line-up includes Pork Chili Verde with Lemon Sage Cornbread for adults and customizable Bento Boxes for the youngsters. We also updated some beloved classics to evoke the comforts of home (think Roast Turkey and Macaroni & Cheese). 

To top it all off, our Chef (and Little Chef) Series bring forward new recipes and fresh menu items each quarter—much like a restaurant would offer weekly specials. It’s our way of keeping up with the seasons and ever-changing consumer taste profiles and delivering them bedside. The biggest trend these days? Plant-forward menuing, such as our recent Beet Burger Sliders. 

From there, we encourage our hospitals to select recipes that match their patient feedback and regional tastes.

Collaboration Is Key

The quest for input doesn’t stop with patients, as we also check in with our associates, “so we’re thinking about what they are thinking about,” says Lent. This could be anyone who works for us in the hospital setting—RDNs, chefs and directors of patient services.

Children who have fallen in love with this summer’s PB&J Chicken Satay can thank Chef William Kilmon of Duke University Medical Center for adding this dash of ingenuity to our Little Chef Series menu. As the winner of our internal Innovation Exchange, Kilmon turned a kid-friendly staple into an Asian-inspired meal choice with high appeal for pediatric patients. The novel recipe features chicken that’s spent time in a grape jelly marinade, served with peanut satay dipping sauce.

Our success in the patient dining sphere is also thanks to true partnerships with our clients. The clinical team working together with food management is what helps us provide the very best to patients daily and leads to continual improvement.

“Dietitians are practicing at bedsides, participating in medical rounds, acting as liaison between hospital and patient dining staff,” describes Lent. “We’ve found this is the best way to identify and resolve any nutritional concerns immediately and completely”—yet another way RDNs can impact patient outcomes.

Tying It All Together With Technology

This level of customization would be impossible to manage at scale without powerful, sophisticated systems. Lent notes that when health outcomes are at stake, “it’s really important we get it straight and keep it straight. A patient’s diet can change throughout their stay, based on their care plan.” 

This is where our technology comes in. Because our meal service database can “talk to” a hospital’s electronic medical records (EMRs), we’re able to offer personalized menus to each patient based on his or her health needs. They may only see the options available to them on their restricted diet, but the menu doesn’t feel limited thanks to the variety of pleasing food choices. 

The data comes full-circle as we collect feedback during rounds. With this information, our clients learn which items are the biggest hits with their patients and can adjust menus accordingly.

On the Mend

Can hospital food truly be restaurant-quality? Bolstered by technology and steadfast commitment to consumer satisfaction, a new generation of patient dining has arrived. 

These meals are on a mission to comfort and heal, perhaps making them the most important food we’ll ever serve. As Lent puts it: “We’re proud of the role dining can play in fueling patient recovery and sending them home with a positive impression.”

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