Hospital Grub Report

ZC8X8127 hosp roommailI was recently residing at the burn unit at New York / Cornell Weill Hospital for a few days, being treated for a severely burned hand. On the first morning of my stay, the hospital nutritionist and her team of students visited me, to discuss the need for a high protein diet to promote wound healing. They quizzed me on my normal diet (which is generally high in lean proteins and vegetables, and low in sugar and refined carbohydrates.) and made some suggestions for eating during my stay.

My breakfast tray arrived shortly thereafter, and I was astonished. There was a plate containing a yellow rubbery omelet with a big glob of plastic looking cheese, a big piece of bright yellow French toast, and a yellow muffin of some sort. There was a bowl of anemic looking fruit, orange juice and sugary yogurt, next to a package of sweetened corn flakes. Four boxes of a nasty tasting protein drink containing 250 calories each were placed next to the bed, for consumption between meals. Condiments included salt, and a variety of faux sugar substitutes. If I had consumed all this food, I would have been past my normal calorie consumption for the next few days. Not to mention the fact that it was highly unenticing.

Menus were delivered for the next few meals. Many of the choices seemed very high carb, high starch, and high sugar. There were protein choices, but most either sounded unappealing, or turned out be.

One would assume that a prominent wellness organization might be thinking a little differently when feeding a mostly bed ridden population. The hospital resides on the upper east side of Manhattan, and is the teaching hospital for both Cornell and Columbia Universities. We are not talking small town middle America here.

Where is the grilled salmon, or chicken breasts? How about a salad?  Plain Greek yogurt has more protein and half the calories of those nutritional drinks. Where is that? Why is it all packaged in plastic? Do they really need to offer all of those artificial sweeteners?  My list of questions is endless.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the cuisine. I did hope that it would be healthier.

Given the menu options, I made the simplest, healthiest choices, knowing that I needed protein for a rapid recovery. I picked at lunch and opted out on dinner. The protein drinks sat unopened.
The next morning, I was greeted with the breakfast I selected: a hardboiled egg, some low fat cottage cheese and a banana, presented in clear plastic cups with stickers on the lids informing me of what lies within. With a bandaged and unusable hand on the right, and an IV tube firmly planted in the opposite elbow, I tried valiantly to peel the egg.  It was hard as a rock, and completely impenetrable. The still green banana was also a challenge, but I managed to open it partway, exposing several bites worth. I gave up before reaching the glob of cottage cheese.

Trays of food came and went, and I ended up leaving the hospital much weaker than when I entered. When people are hospitalized and uncomfortable, presenting the food in a more compelling manner might make one more inclined to eat it. Offering unhealthy options is not doing anyone any favors.  Seeing the food wasted saddened me, as there are many less fortunate people who would have been thrilled to eat what I turned away.
Institutional food doesn’t have to taste terrible. How hard is it to boil an edible egg? Could there be an easy and economical way to make those trays look a little more appetizing?

To the nutritionists in training, I pose a challenge: How can you revamp the system to offer nutritious, appealing food to your patients? Is there a wonderful teaching moment being missed, as you serve a captive audience who may be nutritionally unaware? Chefs in training: can you cook for a huge audience and make it palatable?

The gauntlet has been thrown…

photo: spencer jones

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