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Healing foods

Seafood is increasingly popular on healthcare facility menus

By Lauren Kramer
February 01, 2008

Historically, hospital food probably ranks as high as airline food does in terms of customer satisfaction. But at Consorta's National Battle of the Hospital Chefs in September it was evident that despite the stigma, hospital food can indeed be high caliber, rivaling even that served in traditional restaurants.

All three of the winning chefs served a seafood entrée in the competition. The winner, chef William Read of Saint Mary's Health Care in Grand Rapids, Mich., earned the Gold Chef Award for his macadamia-crusted tilapia with sweet soy reduction.

"Hospital food isn't what it once was," says Read. "Seafood is an attractive option to patients because not only can it be prepared in so many different ways, but it can also easily and inexpensively be 'gourmet-ified,' giving patients a truly satisfying meal. And with its increased nutrients and low fat and cholesterol levels, it helps in the healing process."

Mark Abbott, general manager and chef at St. Mary's Health Care System in Athens, Ga., agrees. "Seafood is about one-third of the offerings on our At Your Request room-service menu, and more and more, the perception from our customers is that it's a healthier alternative to other proteins," he says.

St. Mary's prepares 1,200 meals daily for the hospital and an assisted-living community. Abbott won the silver award in the Hospital Chef competition for his Honey-Lime Grilled Grouper and Shrimp with Watermelon Salsa. The hospital's weekly menu features a rotating selection of steamed fish fillets with different seasonings, popcorn shrimp, fish sandwiches and seafood salads.

The At Your Request menu reduces shrink as patients order precisely what they want and are guaranteed delivery within 45 minutes. Patients select their preferences from the menu and call in their order, which must comply with their dietary restrictions. By contrast, traditional hospitals forecast meals that can be accurate but allow for an extra amount.

"Patients with special diets can only order the things that are within the boundaries of their doctors' orders," explains Abbott. "It's educational for the patient, because they have a restaurant-style menu in their hands, and our hope is that they'll remember what they can and cannot have the next time they dine out."

At Your Request is the brainchild of Sodexho, an international provider of onsite food and facilities management services to corporations, healthcare, long-term care and retirement centers, among other institutions.

"We started the concept of room service in hospitals about 10 years ago," says David Martin, senior director of culinary services at Sodexho, based in Gaithersburg, Md. "It's only offered in about 300 of the 900 acute-care hospitals we service, but once the system is in place, the food cost for that hospital usually improves because we're cooking only what the patient wants."

Martin, who began in the hospital foodservice industry 25 years ago, recalls a time when the menu only referred to "fish," but never what species, and was offered once a week, at most.

"Orange roughy was big for a long time, and later cod. Now, we're inundating our hospitals with tilapia, but through all that, salmon has been our main staple and one of our better performers," says Martin.

Seafood now appears a minimum of three days a week on Sodexho's Better By Design national retail menu for healthcare facilities.

"I have three facilities in Nashville, Tenn., where they feature a seafood entrée every single day," says Martin. "That surprises me because it's a landlocked state, but they eat an amazing amount of fish in that system."

Martin has witnessed seafood becoming more popular than pork at Sodexho's hospital accounts.

"We're really selling a great deal more seafood because the hospitals will pay the price for mahimahi, or whatever species or method of preparation we're selling. They won't pay the price for a good steak, but they will pay the price for a good seafood dish. They view it as a wellness item and they can't get enough of it."

Prices vary on a regional basis, but according to Martin, the range for a patient meal is between $1.35 and $2.25 with an average of $1.75.

At New York University Medical Center, seafood items constitute one-quarter of the patients' menu and one-third of the entrées in the two cafeterias.

"Half of the entrées chosen in catering are fish items," says Orlando Ramos, executive chef of production. "These items are more upscale and include fillet of sole, shrimp, scallop, caviar, lobster or whatever the client wants and is in their budget. The challenge for us is to find the right balance of cost and flavor, as some items you can buy frozen without sacrificing taste or quality, while in others, only fresh will do."

David Rensi, executive chef at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., has seen the hospital's seafood usage triple in the three years he's been there. Rensi and his team prepare 3,000 meals daily, with a patient menu featuring Sesame Maple Salmon, Olive Oil and Tomato Glazed Salmon, Tilapia with a Parmesan Herb Crust and Pan-Fried Catfish in a Cornmeal Breading.

"The whole 'super foods' movement is very much alive in hospitals due, in part, to dieticians on staff and to more educated customers," says Rensi. "In our recent super foods week in the cafeteria, salmon was the No. 1 seller. I think the increased quantities of seafood on our menus are due to demand, thanks to the health benefits of seafood, and also due to the unique things we're doing with this protein."

Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia

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