Hospital food evolves to please the discerning palate

Forget lime Jell-O and soggy vegetables. That’s so yesterday.

Today’s hospital food, for both patients and guests, has evolved to accommodate an increasingly refined palate. If you stop in for a meal at one of South Florida’s health institutions, you might be pleasantly surprised. The food is not only good for you — these are hospitals, after all — but the dishes taste good, too, combining flavors once found only in restaurants.

“More and more hospital kitchens are looking for more than institutional food,” says Aurora Gonzalez-Bautista, director of nutrition services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “People have become a lot more aware of what they eat. Everybody is a foodie now.”

Hospitals are hiring classically trained chefs with experience in the hospitality arena to revolutionize their kitchens and adapt menus to a discerning public. Proof is … well, it’s in the pudding and in the oven-fried chicken and turkey coq au vin and black lentil flourless brownies.

West Kendall Baptist’s Bamboo Café, for example, won the 2016 Taste of Miami challenge. Patients at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital order from a room service menu and have fresh meals delivered to their rooms within 30 minutes. (Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Broward has a similar program, and Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Holtz Children’s will begin a room service program later this year.) At Memorial Hospital Miramar, employees can pre-order take-home meals for their families every Thursday. And if dietary restrictions permit, Mount Sinai Medical Center patients can dine on lobster and steak made to order in an eighth-floor VIP kitchen.

Many of the changes in hospital kitchens have been prompted by a focus on customer satisfaction. The customer is not only the patient, many of whom are limited by diet restrictions, but also the visiting relative and the employees who will likely eat at least one meal a day at work. This means the food has to taste good and look appealing. No more wilted spinach, no more dry meatloaf.

West Kendall Baptist chef Edgardo Llopiz Rivera explains his kitchen’s mission this way: “Food is more than something you eat. You have to make it appealing. People eat with their eyes.”

The get-healthy and stay-healthy movement has also inspired hospital chefs and nutrition services directors to think outside the traditional menu. Prepackaged foods are out and freshness is in. Soups are made from scratch and homemade desserts are the norm.

“Hospitals should take the lead [in nutrition and healthy eating],” explains Erin Corrigan, interim director of food and nutrition at Nicklaus Children’s. “If you’re in a healing profession, you want to make sure you’re serving healthy food that people will want to eat.”

At Nicklaus, where chefs whip up about 300 meals a day for patients, that has meant offering choices in what they eat and when. Room service, Corrigan adds, allows children to eat when they’re actually hungry, not at some predetermined time. The menu can include anywhere from 15 to 20 entrees and 10 sides.

For visitors and employees, there is a main cafeteria and two cafes, one that offers freshly made grab-and-go meals and another one that specializes in artisan sandwiches and coffees. As in other hospitals, Corrigan’s department has partnered with the employee wellness program to promote good eating choices. The result? More dark, leafy green vegetables, more whole grains and more lean protein.

At JMH, where chefs cook about 5,000 to 6,000 meals a day for patients and guests, contractor SodexoMAGIC will be introducing a phone app at the end of this year to help employees and guests learn about the nutritional value of each dish being served that day. “It’s a way for them to plan their meals and know exactly what they’re eating,” says Mike Dussault, general manager of nutrition services. Like many large hospitals, Jackson gets plenty of outside visitors from nearby businesses who stop in for a good meal at a reasonable price.

Mount Sinai’s kitchen in Miami Beach has also undergone an evolution, and much of it is in how a recipe is prepared. Chefs are always looking to take out “bad” ingredients in favor of healthier ones. “We look at every recipe, every piece, and see what we can substitute to make it better,” says Mia Hess, food and nutrition services director.

Soups made from scratch tend to have reduced sodium content, for instance, and a plum puree can replace the fat in some baked goods.

Its food court — with a grill section, a large salad bar and a double pizza oven — serves about 1,500 people, and there are four gourmet coffee carts in the lobby and smoothies in the cancer center.

The real challenge for a hospital chef, however, may be in getting people to make the right choices. While patients may have to abide by the rules of restricted diets, visitors and employees can, and do, make unhealthy selections.

“People still gravitate to the unhealthy items,” admits Adam Feidelman, executive chef at Memorial Hospital Miramar. “They do like their fried foods.”

So Feidelman, who has won twice at the A Sip of Wine…A Taste of Heaven challenge, treats the diners about once a week to those comfort foods but makes sure that those who select the Simply Healthy meal get a free side.

This gentle nudging is a favorite with hospital dining services. At JMH, along with the sushi station, the 40-item salad bar, the fresh grab’n’go sandwiches and the Latin Flair station, cafeteria servers introduce healthy options through free samples. “The trick,” explains Dussault, “is to get them to try it in the first place, before they even consider ordering.”

Another incentive: encourage good choices by offering the best prices for healthier options. At the Bamboo Café, where about 30 to 40 percent of the clients are either visitors or employees from nearby businesses, the Better for You combos are the best money value. Gonzalez-Bautista of West Kendall Baptist calls it “behavioral economics.”

The layout of the restaurant is also key. At the Bamboo Café, the salad bar stands conspicuously in the middle, healthy snacks are provided by the checkout line for the impulse buyer, and the desserts are actually good for diners. (No ice cream on the menu, but 100 percent fruit popsicles and a yogurt bar.) Portions are tightly controlled, too.

In the end, food is one more way of keeping the body running efficiently. “My goal,” says Llopiz Rivera, “is to create the best menu in the community that will attract people to come here and eat. It’s a way of showing that eating healthy can also be good.”



From Nicklaus Children’s Hospital

3 cups cooked black lentils

2 cups milk chocolate chips

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa power

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350. In a food processer, puree lentils, chocolate chips, applesauce, eggs and vanilla extract. Add cocoa powder and salt, and puree until well combined. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with parchment paper, leaving enough paper to stick out from the sides. Spoon batter into pan. Bake for about 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting.

Yield: Serves 8-10


Taste of Miami winner from West Kendall Baptist

8 ounces fresh red bell pepper

1 ounces amber light honey

1 ounces wine rice vinegar

1/2 ounce garlic

7 1/2 g chili sambal olek flavoring

32 ounces fresh butternut squash

4 ounces diced carrot

6 ounces peeled fresh shallot

1 Fuji apple

1 ounces green onion

2 ounces applewood bacon

Dice butternut squash, carrot, shallots, and apple. Slice green onion thin on a bias. Chop bacon and garlic. Place bacon into a preheated sauté pan. Cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon bits from pan and keep fat in pan. Add all cut vegetables, garlic and apple to hot bacon grease. Stir fry vegetable and apple for 6 minutes on high heat. Add vinegar, chili paste, honey. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Set aside and keep warm.