5 Ways to Improve Hospital Cafeteria Food

Doctor and nurse in hospital cafeteria

My best friend recently had surgery. She had a few complications that landed her in the hospital for several nights, so I ate at least one meal in the hospital cafeteria for three consecutive days. Given that I’ve been trying to eat less wheat, less dairy and less meat, my choices were somewhat limited.

First there were the specials of the day – some sort of animal protein, two sides and bread. There was always beef, usually chicken and one day they had fish, but of course, it was fried. The sides were either carb-laden (mac & cheese, mashed potatoes) or vegetables cooked limp beyond recognition (broccoli).

The next station featured all fried foods, all the time. This is where you could get a cheesesteak (they did offer a chicken version if you were feeling virtuous), a cheeseburger, fried fish, fried chicken, etc. And, of course, you could get freshly cooked french fries.

Finally, I spied a salad bar. It had soup too – chicken & dumplings and turkey chili. The salad bar offered the usual veggies plus chickpeas and sunflower seeds. Dressings included all of the thick creamy ones (thousand island, French, ranch) and one vinaigrette – a sickly sweet raspberry.

Beverages offerings were anything in a bottle plus fountain drinks and coffee. And iced tea. Sweetened iced tea. Two giant canisters of tea, both of them sweet.

So to all of you hospital administrators out there, I’d like to make a few recommendations for your cafeteria. You know, the place where your currently healthy employees and visitors are forced to eat at least one meal per day.

  1. Include a vegetarian entrée among your daily specials. You could feature a different type of ethnic food each week (Indian, Thai, etc.) There are many vegetarian main dishes that even meat-eaters would love such as black bean tacos (corn tortillas), spicy red beans and rice or coconut chickpeas with sweet potatoes.
  2. If you serve more than one soup, make one of them completely plant-based (vegan). Meat-eaters won’t avoid things like tomato-basil soup, minestrone or vegetarian chili and you would make the vegans and vegetarians in your crowd so happy.
  3. Offer beverages that don’t involve sugar or artificial sweeteners. How about canisters of unsweetened tea or water with slices of lemons and limes or cucumbers? Maybe some nice tea bags and a supply of hot water for those who don’t drink coffee too?
  4. Add a smoothie bar. This would appeal to everyone whether or not they eat dairy and gluten and it would be another way for people to get some extra vitamins and nutrients from fruits and vegetables. You could have a few set offerings (e.g. “The Stress Buster” with blueberries, banana and coconut water) and a “create your own” option.
  5. Think about folks who avoid gluten and wheat. Offer nut crackers on the salad bar. Allow people who order grilled cheese to get one on gluten-free bread. Let folks who want the daily special to get an extra vegetable instead of bread. Offer vegetable sides that don’t include wheat or dairy.

I don’t have to eat in a hospital cafeteria every day, thank goodness. As I glanced around the dining room, I watched people in scrubs wolf down meals such as burgers and fries or roast beef with mashed potatoes and mac & cheese and bread. Even the folks who had healthy-looking salads usually got a side of fries.

I’m not saying that offering healthier food will make people eat it, but at least give folks a choice. They might surprise you.


  1. says

    I don’t like hospital cafeteria food either. Greasy, fatty, oily things. I remember having to live on it when my wife had to stay a few days in the hospital after the birth of our eldest. I wasn’t as choosy with my food then as I am now, but even that was too much for me.

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