Your father is staying in the hospital while recovering from a heart attack. The two of you have gotten into the routine of eating lunch together; he has his meals delivered by hospital employees and you brown bag it.

You're surprised by the things the hospital is giving your dad to eat—pizza, meatloaf, potatoes with butter—not things you'd expect a heart-attack patient to be eating. But, you figure the hospital experts know best, right?

One day you forget to bring your lunch so you pop down to the hospital cafeteria to grab a quick bite to go.

The scene that greets you as you step into the dining area almost gives you a coronary of your own.

A fried chicken bar dominates the linoleum landscape and no fewer than four fast-food restaurants ring the perimeter. Finding something semi-healthy to eat proves to be a challenge as you find yourself facing menus laden with hot dogs, burgers, and country-fried steak.

A hospital commissary serving fried, fatty food to patients and guests may seem like a hallucination but, according to a study conducted by the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) this is the reality for a surprising number of U.S. medical institutions.

To get a pulse on the state of the healthfulness of hospital food in the U.S., the PCRM visited hospitals in all 50 states, as well the District of Columbia. They found that a startling amount of institutions played host to a variety of fast-food joints (including McDonald's and Chick-fil-a) and served a variety of high-fat foods to patients and visitors alike.

Food experts aren't surprised by these findings. "Hospital food gets a bad rap for a good reason—the majority of hospitals in the U.S. serve food that tastes bad, is fried, and overall, just isn't good for you," says Randy Emert, executive chef for the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in West Bloomfield, MI.

Shedding pounds (and a bad reputation) can be a challenge

The goal of serving safe, nutritious, tasty food to patients and their visitors can be difficult for hospitals to reach, due to several factors.

Food handling and safety regulations are understandably strict for medical institutions, according to Andrew Catalano, M.M., former Director of Hospitality and Service Excellence for the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate, Long Island College Hospital.

Another difficulty lies in the sheer amount of food that must be procured and cooked in order to feed the many patients staying in a hospital.

According to Catalano, the size and logistics of a facility, coupled with the fact that thousands of meals must be produced every day for patients, visitors and staff, forces many hospitals to resort to advanced cooking methods. The strain that these methods can place on a hospital's finances and manpower means that some clinics have to forgo fancy food preparation techniques, and instead rely on mass-produced, frozen meals.

Beyond the logistics lies the task of pleasing a variety of patient palates (some of which have been compromised by prescription medications) with food that is both healthy and appetizing.

"The biggest challenge," Emert says, "is providing patients with healthy food that tastes as good as similar dishes that have higher fat, sodium and preservatives—without adding these any of these things."

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

The chefs at Henry Ford West Bloomfield use certain techniques to make patient dishes healthier while not compromising taste.

For example, instead of adding salt to a dish, they use the deglazing technique—a particular method of sauce creation that takes advantage of the leftover juices from cooking a piece of meat. They also substitute condensing liquids for butter and make use of healthy spices such as turmeric and cinnamon to enhance the flavor profiles of their dishes.

Comfort food, rehashed

When it comes to coming up with a menu that has wide-spread appeal, both Catalano and Emert say their facilities focus on one main category: comfort food.

While the term "comfort food" may bring to mind images of gooey macaroni and cheese and juicy pot roast, some hospitals have reclaimed and reconfigured this culinary genre to make it suitable for their patients and guests. "Most patients want comfort food when they are hospitalized, so we provide healthy versions of traditional favorite dishes," Emert says.

Keeping menu categories simple means that a hospital can offer eight different entrees for lunch and dinner, while still being able to individualize dishes based on a patient's condition, food allergies, and dietary needs.

Some facilities even take into account the cultural preferences of their patients, offering kosher meals and halal meats.

Eating healthy in a hospital setting

Hospitals around the country are now striving to offer healthier meal options to their patients and visitors. But, for many facilities, the investment of both money and manpower that is required can be a substantial impediment to the adoption of a better food model.

While you probably can't (and shouldn't) choose which hospital a loved one goes to based off of the quality of their culinary options, as a caregiver, you can try to ensure that they're getting the healthiest food possible by using these tips:

  • Ask your loved one's doctor about what kinds of foods they should and should not be eating.
  • Make sure that the hospital employee who is delivering the meals is aware of any food allergies and dietary restrictions your loved one has. They probably are already aware of this information, but giving them a polite reminder can't hurt.
  • Inquire about the nutritional information of the food offerings. If your loved one has multiple options to choose from, try to steer them towards dishes that contain fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins such as chicken or fish.