Healthy Comfort Foods—an interview with Crystal Johnson

Food that hospital patients actually look forward to eating. Food that nourishes and assists in healing patients. Food that helps improve the overall patient experience because it comforts the patient. This hospital food revolution and continual evolution is what Crystal Johnson, Data Systems Analyst at University of Utah Healthcare Systems, shares with us in this interview.

Hospital food has recently undergone a massive shift—from standard to cafeteria food to food that is appealing, nutritionally sound, and tailored per nutritional value to certain patient populations. Food has become medicine while simultaneously being restaurant quality. How has this transformation affected your hospital? And do you think hospital food will continue to evolve?

Overall the effects have been positive. As for our department, these changes have made our jobs more challenging, yet more interesting. Rather than simply serving your basic, processed foods, we have to get creative and come up with ways to produce and serve mass quantities of high-quality, fresh foods. The good news is that fresh foods also tend to be much healthier than processed, which helps us better help our patients heal.

As for the patients at our hospital, they get food they can actually look forward to—no matter what diet they are on. We don't have to sacrifice taste or quality due to diet restrictions. And since the patients enjoy what they are eating, they will eat more and be more likely to heal more quickly.

Yes, hospital food will continue to evolve. We are just barely scratching the surface of the possibilities of making fresh, healthy food. We will see more and more hospitals getting more creative with the types of foods they serve and where they get it. Something that I think we will be seeing more of in the near future is more hospitals tapping into resources like farmers' markets or even growing their own gardens in order to get fresher, tastier ingredients.

How has technology supported this transition?

Technology has given us access to the information we need to make all this possible. Between the Internet and our own (FSS) databases, we are better able to analyze the recipes we create or even find healthy, tasty recipes that others have created and shared. We also have those analyses at our fingertips with programs like Room Service Choice®, so we can share that ingredient and nutrition information with our patients. This allows us to have great teaching moments with our patients to help them choose healthier options.

How would you define comfort food?

Comfort food depends wholly on your patient population/culture. What one region considers to be comfort food may be totally different from another region—even right next door. We try to base what we consider comfort food on patient feedback. Sometimes we get it right, but sometimes we get it wrong. Our population generally is very "meat & potatoes," so, not long ago, we thought biscuits and gravy would be a hit. It didn't go over very well, and we ended up changing that option soon after adding it.

How do you reconcile comfort foods that patients gravitate toward in times of sickness with nutritionally sound foods that optimize healing?

I think the biggest thing is making them as close to one and the same as possible. Starting with fresh, quality ingredients is key, as well as making as much as you can from scratch—using as few processed ingredients as possible. Also, sometimes it's the little changes that can have a lot of impact. For example, we have homemade whole wheat crusts for the pizzas that we serve to patients. They are still getting what they want, it tastes good, but it is also more wholesome than your average pizza. We also have a heart healthy pot pie option that has biscuit crumbles on top instead of a full crust. This reduces the sodium content but at the same time allows us to give patients a comfort food that actually has a lot of other good things in it, which otherwise wouldn't be feasible because of the crust.

How do you encourage patients to choose healthier options, even though those options could be out of a patient's comfort zone?

First of all, we try to "sell" how good those options are. We frequently offer them as a "special" which in a restaurant is something that people are willing to try even if it's out of their comfort zone. We also try to emphasize information such as it is "homemade" or made from "fresh ingredients" because you then know that the quality is often going to be better. At other times, we give them an entrée that they know they would like, but help them to be more adventurous with their choice of sides, because that means less risk for them since it is not the main option.

What initiatives have your hospital undergone to make comfort food more healthy? Or healthy food more comfortable?

Not sure if I would call it an "initiative," but when we created our new menu during our transition to Room Service Choice, we decided we wanted to offer foods that the patients would like, but also make them healthier so they would cover as many diets as possible. During this period, we hired talented, creative chefs who have a passion for making good food that can also be good for you. We have had some positive results from this initiative! One of our most popular items is a pulled pork sandwich that is actually compliant with our cardiac diets!