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Healing helpings

Hospitals spicing up menus with variety and local foods

October 2, 2011
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

A number of hospitals across the nation are breaking the old Jell-O mold, blending feeling better with tasting better as they liven up patient menus with the likes of fresh blood oranges and shrimp scampi. Some are focusing on nutritious fare, in addition to putting more organic and locally-grown items on the menu.

Tim Forte, general manager for nutrition services for Nathan Littauer?Hospital and Nursing Home, said the kitchen is hitting all those points as they move toward tastier, more interesting meals.

"The menu is dynamic," he said Friday.

Article Photos

Donna VanEvery gets food ready for lunch at Nathan Littauer Nursing?Home in?Gloversville on?Friday.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney Minor

Forte, who started working at the hospital about 3 years ago, said in the past 18 months changes have been made to produce a daily menu with more variety, and nutritious and locally-sourced foods.

For example, he said, before he arrived, typical items on the menu were classic comfort food, such as Salisbury steak. An item on the menu now, he said, is more akin to the southwestern flank steak salad they prepare. They also throw in ethnic dishes - for example, Irish food on?St. Patrick's Day - and have plans to work in more, including Latin-American meals.

Forte said their produce comes from?Antonucci's Wholesale Produce in?Gloversville. By working with a local seller, he said, he knows what local farms are producing the food and what will be available in the future to plan meals around.

"People want to know where their food is coming from," Forte said.

Forte said he also is working with Mohawk Harvest?Cooperative Market in Gloversville, and plans to start purchasing more locally-sourced meats and cheeses.

The hospital's nutritionists at the hospital have been a driving force behind improving the quality of food on the menu, he said. After all, Forte said, it makes sense to make sure the menu includes some food the nutritionist would recommend to a patient.

Of course, Forte noted, the menu will still include some classic comfort foods, such as pot roast or lasagna. However, they can be given a twist. For example, he said, the lasagna they serve is a roasted vegetable lasagna.

"We are always evolving," Forte said.

Cheryl McGrattan, the public relations director for the hospital and nursing home, noted she had a muffuletta sandwich at the hospital recently. It was the first time she had one since visiting New Orleans, the home of the sandwich

While it is comfort food, she said, "It was excellent."

The movement toward tastier - and often more nutritious - hospital food even reached the Culinary Institute of America, the well-known school for chefs north of New York City, which offered a first-of-its-kind course on cooking for health care patients last spring.

Students in the elective class took field trips to nearby Vassar Brothers Medical Center and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The idea is to learn first-hand the nuances of tray lines, the challenges of serving people with severe dietary restrictions and what goes into creating higher-end hospital food.

"I want to break this image. I want to embarrass people when they say 'hospital food? Their food is awful," said Lynne Eddy, who is teaching Food Service Management in Health Care. "Let me show you what good food is in a health care facility."

But this is about more than taste. Food that is both good and nutritious can help patients heal, as well as boost their morale, said Eddy.

It's natural that the same American consumers who scout out fresh basil at the grocer and hormone-free beef at Mexican restaurants want a similar experience when they're hospitalized. And customizing meals for patients and efforts to become more "gastronomically conscious" have helped the health-care food-service industry grow 4 percent last year, according market researcher Packaged Facts. Growth is expected to continue as executives in the competitive health care industry become more attuned to overall patient satisfaction.

Clearly, there still are hospitals that serve up bland or overcooked food. But a growing number are crafting meals that resemble restaurant fare or are stressing local and organic ingredients. Or both.

Seattle Children's Hospital, for example, swapped out white breads and pastas for whole wheat and pumped up its vegetable content. Executive chef Walter Bronowitz introduced an Asian noodle stir fry made with whole-wheat spaghetti, carrots, onions, mushrooms and shelled edamame.

Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland, buys cage-free eggs, organic produce from local growers and grass-fed beef. Food service manager Holly Emmons said while buying local and organic can be more labor intensive - everyone in the kitchen pitches in to husk corn during the summer - the extra effort is worth it.

Patients at facilities run by California-based Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest not-for-profit health plans, might eat ancho-citrus marinated loin of pork over an essence of natural jus, paired with cinnamon-stewed apples, barley pilaf and broccoli. Kaiser, which also runs farmer's markets at many of its facilities, puts an emphasis on serving patients fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We certainly started that process of trying to see what's available closer to home, what's seasonal and trying to put those fresher, more local products on the trays," said Dr. Preston Maring, who spearheads many of Kaiser's healthy foods initiatives.

Hospitals are stressing nutritious and sustainable foods as people become more conscious of the role of food in health, patient experience and sustainability, said Michelle Gottlieb of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of medical professionals and others devoted sustainable health care practices.

"This is just becoming much more mainstream," said Gottlieb, who co-chairs the group's Healthy Food in Healthcare program.

If there is a five-star kitchen in the world of hospital food, it might be at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where top restaurant veteran chef Pnina Peled gets attention for the creative dishes she whips up for young cancer patients.

One 8-year-old boy on a restricted diet after a bone marrow transplant received pasta carbonara with low-fat milk instead of heavy cream, whole-wheat pasta and turkey bacon. Another young girl with a bone marrow transplant who mentioned she liked the chain restaurant Moe's Southwest Grill was fixed up by Peled with sauteed and seasoned black bean dishes with blue chips on the side.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.



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