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March 18, 2011

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Yummy hospital food to die for

AMERICAN hospitals are blending feeling better with tasting better as they liven up patient menus with the likes of fresh blood oranges and shrimp scampi.

The movement to tastier - and often more nutritious - hospital food even has reached the famous Culinary Institute of America north of New York City, which offers a first-of-its-kind course on cooking for health-care patients.

Students taking the elective visit nearby Vassar Brothers Medical Center and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. They learn first-hand the nuances of tray lines, the challenges of serving people with severe dietary restrictions and what makes higher-end hospital food.

"I want to break this image. I want to embarrass people when they say, 'Hospital food? Their food is awful," says 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, says 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. Customizing meals and becoming more "gastronomically conscious" helped the health care food service industry grow 4 percent last year, according market researcher Packaged Facts. Growth is likely to continue as executives in the competitive health care industry become more attuned to overall patient satisfaction.

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

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

Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland, buys cage-free eggs, organic produce from local growers and grass-fed beef. While buying local and organic can be more labor intensive - everyone in the kitchen pitches in to husk corn during the summer - 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 facilities, emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We started the process of seeing what's available closer to home, what's seasonal and serving fresher, more local products," says Dr Preston Maring, who heads many 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, says Michelle Gottlieb of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of medical professionals and others devoted to sustainable health care practices.

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

If there is a five-star kitchen of hospital food, it might be at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where top restaurant veteran chef Pnina Peled has drawn 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. A girl with a bone marrow transplant who liked Mexican food was served sauteed and seasoned black bean dishes with blue chips on the side.

The girl loves it, her parents are grateful and Peled herself is awed.

"I can't explain," Peled says. "It's amazing how fulfilling it is."

"It's one thing to cook in a restaurant and get excited about everybody loving your food," she says. "But it's another to know people with eating challenges, taste issues, nausea and even vomiting actually look forward to what I do - to eating here. "

Eddy's small culinary class is almost certainly is the only course at the culinary institute that requires students to read a book about a terminally ill patient.


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