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The ‘skinny’ on hospital food

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Dear Sean,

Confession: I’m a new nurse and can’t seem to get into the habit of preparing my lunches from home. I always end up eating in the cafeteria and I’m gaining weight! I know different hospitals probably offer different selections, but what would you recommend for a healthy, FILLING lunch that will get me through my entire shift? I’m a pretty picky eater so unfortunately I always reach for my go-to’s and they’re always carbo loaded!!

Thanks,
Cafeteria Girl

Dear Cafeteria Girl,

Yes, of course that pun was intended. And no, eating hospital food is not the way to become skinny (At least not all by itself)! So the question remains, if I am going to eat the cafeteria food offered at the hospital – what are my most health-conscious choices?

First of all, I think you know how I feel about eating in the cafeteria. So let’s just assume you didn’t have the time to properly prepare for you day at work, and of course ya gotta eat. So what can you eat from the cafeteria that won’t wreck or sabotage your good-intentioned healthy eating habits (you notice I didn’t use that dreadful word diet).

First things first, most of your food choices aren’t what I’d consider ‘healthy’, so in my opinion it’s all about the lesser of many evils. Almost all the food offered is either processed, pre-packaged, or worse yet -has been sitting out in the ‘food bar’ for who knows how long! (Need I remind you of your microbiology education and what happens to food when it sits out for a long period of time; Regardless of the temperature!)

Now, there are exceptions and this is mostly determined by the hospital setting and size. I’ve worked in large urban hospitals where their cafeteria puts most restaurants to shame. They had a cornucopia of food choices, and the majority of the food was freshly made daily! On the other hand, small-town community hospitals don’t have much in the way of variety. You get the ‘du jour’ menu with the options of a salad/ soup bar that comes with the ‘pre-packaged’ or ‘yesterday’s’ sandwich wrapped up and thrown in the fridge as your alternative food item. In any case the larger the hospital usually lends to more options and variety.

So here’s the ‘skinny’ on hospital food choices:

The Bad

  • Everything pre-packaged and older than the current day

You would think this would be obvious, but be sure to stay far away from anything that comes pre-made, or is wrapped in cellophane and put back on the shelf. This is just an opportunity for an upset stomach, let alone the preservatives and sodium it is probably harboring.

  • Du Jour Menu

How long has it been brewing and boiling? Think about the food itself – how do you prepare it? Does it look undercooked? Overcooked? Is it raw? Is it fried? Even the most heavily advertised ‘healthy’ food is NOT that healthy.

  • Vending Machines

Do I really have to explain?

  • Junk food Alley

This is the cheap version of Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and all the other ‘fast-food’ knock-off foods offered- hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, ‘Chinese’. Etc. I hate to even have to mention this oh-so obvious dreadful food choices, but there are individuals out there that think since it’s not from the popularly-named food chains that for some crazy reason it’s healthy?? (And we wonder why our waistlines are not slimming down?)

The Good

  • Anything made fresh daily

I worked in a hospital that had a Deli. MM MM MM. They had some great food. Everything form sandwiches, subs, hot or cold. It was made on the spot right in front of you (once again this is ideal, but not commonplace). With this option be careful of the ‘fixins’, condiments, and amount of bread you’re using. The bread alone is a killer on calories.

  • Salads

Now lets be clear here, I’m talking fresh salad. Not the stuff you see wrapped in the wonderful cellophane from yesterday. Is the lettuce green or is it darkened and wilted? Is there more than just lettuce in that salad? Also be sparing with your choices of salad dressing. It’s not the salad that gets you, it’s what you choose to drown your salad with that does. I like to ‘doctor’ my salad with colors (vegetables and fruits). The more colors, the healthier it is. Also the occasional crouton, sesame seeds, olives, nuts, etc won’t hurt either (remember this all about the lesser evil).

  • Soups

Be careful with the ‘freshness’ factor. Sometimes the soup looks fresh, but it’s really 2 days old. Check the actual contents, is there a film or ‘skin’ to the top of the soup? Does it look like it’s on the verge of  boiling or just lukewarm? The sodium content is also something to keep in mind. Be sure not to ‘doctor’ this one up too much either with a box of saltines!

  • Du Jour Menu

Yes, this choice is bad and good. If all else fails, at least you know this is as fresh as you’re going to get. Be smart about the portion size and the extras that go with it. Go light on the gravy, avoid too much ‘sauce’, and be careful of the ‘fried’ factor. Anything fried screams “calories and fat”. Anything steamed and baked is the way to go.

I won’t lie to you, I cannot remember the last time I actually ate anything from a hospital cafeteria. And frankly, I don’t miss it one bit! It’s the ‘unknown’ factor. You really have no idea what the full caloric content is of anything you eat. You can surely make some good guesses, but in the end you are at the mercy of the people who made it and the people serving it. Not to say there is anything wrong with those individuals! Please don’t get me wrong. I just feel in order to take control of your eating habits and the food you eat, you should be the one who is in control.

We all overcompensate for our hunger. We love eating past our feeling of fulfillment, and we all underestimate the amount of calories we consume. Be smart, be careful and if all else fails take less.

Best of luck!

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2 Responses to The ‘skinny’ on hospital food

  1. Bettie

    Hospitals have the opportunity to join Health Care Without Harm http://www.noharm.org Healthy food Pledge and begin the focus on healthier meals for employees, patients and visitors. Mid coast Hospital in Brunswick Maine is one who has signed that pledge. Today I had a choice of a fantastic salad bar that offers multiple greens, kidney & garbanzo beans, the ususal tomatoes, carrots, cukes, sunflower seeds etc. Hot lunch was a choice of spaghetti with meat sauce OR spaghetti with eggplant “meat” balls. There are two soups, one is labeled as healthy choice, a whole wheat crust vegie pizza. Find interested cooworkers and get started.

  2. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Bettie – Wow! I’ve never heard of this program. Thanks for sharing.

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