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Patients need to eat in order to recover, but hospital food can be unappetizing. What if those meals were tastier and better for the planet?


If food is medicine, then there is perhaps no better example of its powers at work than in fueling patient recovery in our hospitals.

“We’ve long used the phrase ‘food is medicine’ and we’re finding that this is true not only for patients but for our planet as well,” said Dr. Annie Lalande in a press release.

“Providing tasty, nutritious meals, which is critical to recovery from illness and injury, also presents a significant opportunity to decrease our environmental footprint by focusing on lower-impact ingredients.”

Lalande co-led the Planetary Health Menu Pilot project at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), as a surgical resident and PhD student in Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia; the study was also co-led by Tiffany Chiang, Director, Food Service Transformation and Strategic Projects at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Their mission was a major undertaking. Each meal time at VGH needs to cater to the needs of 600-700 patients, with very specific nutritional requirements that must be met. And as each patient strives to heal, they may also struggle to eat. For a variety of reasons they may not have a strong appetite or motivation to eat, or they may lack the energy needed to chew their meal.

Being faced with a bland or unappealing tray of hospital food presents an additional barrier. An estimated half of all hospital food served goes uneaten, and that is food that patients need to eat to get well.

Lalande and Chiang saw this as a massive opportunity to overhaul the menu, not only to improve the patient experience, but also to make changes that would benefit the planet by making more sustainable choices. The project involved a multi-disciplinary team of dietitians, clinicians, planetary health experts, and food services staff that worked with Vancouver-based chef Ned Bell to create over 20 new menu items.

Starting by collecting patient feedback, the team found that the most common request was for hospital meals to be more flavourful. They also heard that patients wanted more culturally diverse recipes. Texture and freshness were also important to patients.

An important aspect of the pilot was a shift towards more plant-forward menu items. In some cases that meant swapping out meat and dairy products for plant-based proteins or fish. Often, these substitutions were also more cost effective, leaving more space in the food budget for finishing touches like sauces and garnishes, which were a big hit with patients. Where possible, the team sourced fresh, local produce to serve alongside their main dishes.

Leading by example, the team also hopes that these meals may encourage patients to adopt some of these healthy and sustainable choices in their own kitchens as they continue their recovery at home.

Surveys and interviews were used to learn more about how patients felt about the food they were served to help improve the offerings over time. Popular menu items that were served during the pilot included Steelhead Trout with Tomato Miso Dressing, Creamy Coconut Chickpea Curry with Cauliflower and Cashews served with Mango Chutney, and a Korean Gochujang Bowl.

For a more objective measure, the team also gathered data on food waste during the pilot to gauge whether patients were actually eating more of their meals. The dishes that were the most well received are slated for permanent adoption across Vancouver Coastal Health.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.