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Healthy Hospital Food

Adding Plant-Based Options to Patient Menus

Bring healthy, plant-based options to your hospital.

In 2017, the American Medical Association passed a resolution that asks hospitals to make healthful plant-based meals available to staff, patients, and visitors. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains can decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure and can prevent and even reverse chronic diseases. Providing plant-based options to patients allows for a teachable moment to discuss the importance of nutrition as part of the healing process.

The AMA resolution also calls on hospitals to eliminate processed meat from menus. The World Health Organization has determined that processed meat is a major contributor to colorectal cancer, classifying it as “carcinogenic to humans.”  A 50-gram serving a day—one hot dog or two strips of bacon—increases colorectal cancer risk by 18%. Processed meat is also linked to stomach, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancers, along with cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.  A majority of hospitalized patients favor eliminating processed meat from hospital menus to reduce cancer risk, according to a survey published in the Journal of Hospital Management and Health Policy.

The American College of Cardiology has also recommended that hospitals provide plant-based meals and eliminate processed meat.

Here are 10 tips on how to bring plant-based meals to your hospital: 

1. Start by reviewing your menu.

Look at your current patient and cafeteria menus for existing plant-based options that provide a nutritionally complete meal. Identify key plant-based ingredients in other dishes that you could use for a new dish and note which meals use processed meat. 

2. Identify gaps in the menu.

Is there a substantive option for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? These meals should meet your hospital nutrient guidelines.

3. Make a plan and bring in key staffers to help.

If you do not have plant-based meals available, meet with your hospital’s food service director and administrators to see if necessary menu changes can be made at the hospital or health system level. Discuss overall staff time and resources that might be needed.

4. Identify what resources are available to you.

Review what equipment and supplies you already have and the cost of your current menu. Evaluate frozen, prepared, and scratch-made menu items for their cost and nutrition value: Can any of these items be made plant-based by switching out an ingredient? Are some options eaten more than others?

5. Ask your food service company what plant-based recipes they offer.

Many of the main hospital food service providers already offer plant-based packages. They can even use these tested recipes. 

See if they can swap ingredients to create nutritionally complete plant-based meals by replacing animal products with protein-rich beans, lentils, and tofu. Ask if they offer plant-based milks or fortified foods containing vitamin B12.

6. Test different recipes.

Once you have identified the new recipes you would like to add, invite kitchen and administrative staff to try out the new dishes and provide feedback.

7. Update patient menu cards with the new, plant-based options.

Let your patients know that you have delicious, plant-based meals available to them! Consider a weekly plant-based special on a rotation as an insert.

8. Educate your staff.

Offer in-service training for:

  1. Registered dietitians: Show a plant-based nutrition continuing education video or create your own presentation. We recommend including a copy of the Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.
  2. Kitchen staff: If your staff would benefit from training in plant-based cooking, contact the Forward Food program.
  3. Nursing staff and other employees: Provide an educational film screening (such as Forks Over Knives) or offer a class by a specially trained Food for Life instructor.

9. Educate your patients and promote the new plant-based options.

Teach patients how plant-based options can help them stay healthy. You can use these free handouts, or create your own.

Offer samples to nursing and administrative staff and include an article in your in-house and public newsletters about the new options. Reach out to local media about the steps your facility has taken to offer delicious, health-promoting food.

10. Work with us!

We offer free guidance, recipes, and resources through our Healthy Hospital Program. We would love to work with you to bring healthy, plant-based options to your community.