Awful food in hospitals? Nutrition experts look to break stereotype
Northern Nevada Business Weekly
RENO, Nev. – Meals developed from organic ingredients – some purchased locally – and made from scratch.
An emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables.
The increased use of herbs as a seasoning to allow less use of salt.
While this all sounds like something from a little cafe around the corner from one of Reno’s big hospitals, it’s reflective of new thinking in the nutritional services departments of the region’s medical centers.
Hospital nutrition executives acknowledge that the thousands of jokes about hospital food often have been grounded in reality – but they want to put the jokes to rest with vastly improved menus.
“I’m trying to break that perspective,” says Doug Chapman, a former casino chef who serves as executive chef and director of nutrition services for Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center.
The Saint Mary’s kitchen these days is making more dishes from scratch with fresh ingredients and relies less on processed foods.
While use of fresh foods stays in tune with the tastes of hospital patients, it’s also cost-effective.
“Those processed foods are expensive,” Chapman says.
Renown Regional Medical Center, meanwhile, has added more fresh fruit and more salads to its menus to meet the desires of patients, says Jessica Krenkel, the hospital’s director of food and nutrition service.
She says the hospital also is working to develop local sources of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh melons from the Fallon area might be one possibility.
Renown’s patient menus now include more comfort foods as well as ethnic dishes that have been requested by patients.
The point of all the changes in menus at Saint Mary’s and elsewhere, Chapman says, is simple: “It promotes healing.”
But it’s not easy.
The kitchen facilities at Renown Medical Center sent out 1,000 trays a day – and those trays can require any one of 100 different diet combinations to meet specific nutritional needs of patients.
Meals for patients in The Renown Institute for Neurosciences’ Comprehensive Stroke Center, for instance, are created to be highly flavorful. That helps stroke patients produce more saliva and ease the problems they may face with swallowing.
The complexity is likely to continue to grow.
Krenkel says, for instance, that the hospital’s nutritional staff is working to develop a menu especially for oncology patients. Members of the hospital’s 105-employee nutritional staff have been visiting with cancer patients to learn more about the foods that they like.
The rising demand for gluten-free products, meanwhile, means the hospital searches for new products.
“We’ve just found a gluten-free bread that really is quite good,” Krenkel says.
The hospital’s kitchen is fielding more requests, too, for rice milk and almond milk these days from patients who are lactose intolerant.
Still, Chapman says hospital kitchens aren’t likely to become beloved favorites of foodies.
Few patients want to be in the hospital, he says, and they likely to focus some of their frustration on the food. Many other patients are drugged in one way or another, and their taste buds are affected.
And because healing properties and good nutrition always will continue to be the priority in hospital foods, great taste never will be the principal reason that a dish makes it onto the menu.
Everything that’s on the Renown menu, Krenkel says, has undergone a careful nutritional analysis.
And the focus on good nutrition plays out in a multitude of small decisions in a hospital kitchen.
Chapman notes, for instance, that many of the dishes developed by Saint Mary’s nutritional staff are part of low-sodium diet plans. That means they rely far more on herbs for flavor and far less on the salt to which American palates are accustomed.
The Saint Mary’s initiative is part of a wider effort launched two years ago by Catholic Healthcare West, the parent organization of the Reno hospital.
Michael Johnson, vice president for community health and mission integration at Saint Mary’s, says Catholic Healthcare West has included its food operations in a study of ways it can reduce its environmental footprint.
That includes use of local sourcing of food supplies whenever possible – a step that has economic as well as environmental benefits.
“If we can help support local business, that’s good for the community,” says Johnson.
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