One of my favorite ways to “break the ice” with patients is to ask, “How was lunch/dinner?” The answers are mixed at best and it’s not hard to see why.We intuitively know that there is a strong connection between nutrition, food, comfort, and healing. Is hospital food doing the job? Or there is a serious miscalculation somewhere in that equation?
Hospital cooking must be a grueling job.As this Restaurant Confessional describes, there are grave consequences for messing up a patient’s order: a patient might get a food they are allergic to, they can’t tolerate, or could cause high blood sugar, hyperkalemia, hyperphosphatemia, etc. There are many different kinds of diets a patient could be on, and as this list shows, none of them sound particularly appetizing. Low-residue? The renal diet? I’ll take the heart arrhythmia, just give me a sandwich with real ham, please.
Whatever the kitchen’s good intentions, there are odes to the quality–or lack thereof–of hospital food. Entire tumblrs, such as this one, are dedicated to the visual horrors that some patients are offered as sustenance. Recently, there was an online hubbub about hospital food in the UK when the Daily Mail posted pictures that made many lose their appetite, and led to statements from the government that they would enforce “food quality standards” across the nation’s hospitals.
Once the tray is at the bedside, there’s not much that encourages the patient to eat. The meal delivery person only has three minutes per patient to drop off a tray, which is not much time to chat or raise a patient’s spirits. It’s up to overworked nurses and aides help a patient with eating, and feeding the patient, which can be one of the most intimate experiences you have with another person, becomes not a bonding experience but a burden.
Even more damning is the food that we offer to patients’ families and visitors in the cafeteria. I cannot count the number of Chick-Fil-A’s, Panda Expresses, or KFCs that I’ve seen in hospitals. In the city where I work, across the street from one of the world’s most prestigious and cutting-edge cancer centers is a McDonald’s. Fast food places serve the very kind of food we counsel our patients NOT to eat and sends the wrong message (and strengthens the stranglehold that large corporations have on our food sources but that’s another discussion).
Efforts such as the Partnership for a Healthier America, whose honorary head is Michelle Obama, sound nice in theory, but unfortunately cannot solve all the problems surrounding nutrition and food in the hospital setting. Individual patient’s cultural preferences for certain foods, ability to tolerate foods, frustration with foods, and ability to afford food, confound a one-size-fits-all approach to better nutrition.
There is a lot of reform that needs to happen in the realm of hospital food. Nutrition is not just about counting calories and maintaining electrolytes, it’s also about providing an enjoyable experience for one of the most basic human needs. Hospital food should not be the butt of jokes on the Internet. It should be part of the healing process.