- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2011

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. | Haute cuisine is to hospital food as coq au vin is to mystery meat, right?

Maybe once, but a number of hospitals are breaking the old Jell-O mold, blending feeling better with tasting better as they liven up patient menus with the likes of fresh blood oranges and shrimp scampi.

The movement toward tastier — and often more nutritious — hospital food has reached the Culinary Institute of America, the well-known school for chefs north of New York City, which is offering a first-of-its-kind course on cooking for health care patients.

Students in the elective class are taking field trips to nearby Vassar Brothers Medical Center and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The idea is to learn firsthand the nuances of tray lines, the challenges of serving people with severe dietary restrictions and what goes into creating higher-end hospital food.

“I want to break this image. I want to embarrass people when they say ‘Hospital food? Their food is awful,’” said 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, said Miss 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. And customizing meals for patients and efforts to become more “gastronomically conscious” have helped the health care food service industry grow 4 percent last year, according to market researcher Packaged Facts. Growth is expected to continue as executives in the competitive health care industry become more attuned to overall patient satisfaction.

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

Seattle Children’s Hospital, for example, 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.

Union Hospital in Elkton, Md., buys cage-free eggs, organic produce from local growers and grass-fed beef. Food service manager Holly Emmons said that while buying local and organic can be more labor intensive — everyone in the kitchen pitches in to husk corn during the summer the 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 farmers markets at many of its facilities, puts an emphasis on serving patients fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We certainly started that process of trying to see what’s available closer to home, what’s seasonal and trying to put those fresher, more local products on the trays,” said Dr. Preston Maring, who spearheads many of Kaiser’s healthy foods initiatives.

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