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Culinary Comfort: How Dietitians Help Hospital Patients

Exercise and Nutrition
Author name: Lee Health

No salt, no gluten, no sugar, no nuts: Hospital patients’ diet restrictions vary from the simple to the complex.

The nutrition staff at each hospital location manages all of the special food needs and preferences for hundreds of patients each day.

“All of our meals are health conscious,” says Ashley Lovetere, a registered dietitian (RD) who works daily to encourage healthy eating habits. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have variety.”

One example is the starch presented from the dinner menu. A cardiac patient might receive potatoes, while a renal patient will get egg noodles and someone with no dietary restrictions may receive macaroni and cheese.

Each patient who is registered in the system—which is every patient who gets meals on any given day—has a chart that indicates to the entire dietary staff what foods are appropriate for that person.

Each of the hospitals at Lee Health — Lee Memorial Hospital, The Rehabilitation Hospital, Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, Gulf Coast Medical Center, Cape Coral Hospital and HealthPark Medical Center – have their own nutritionists and dietary staff, but the process is the same.

Food is prepared in the Culinary Solutions kitchens and delivered to each location throughout the day.

Throughout the pandemic, the staff has utilized disposable trays and other items to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID. They provide individually wrapped bread and fruit and other items. Additionally, the staff wears the recommended PPE while serving patient meals. 

Food Favorites

Menus change throughout the year, depending on what’s in season. The most requested item isn’t a snack or main course.

“It’s apple juice,” Lovetere says. “It’s comforting to a lot of patients. For someone who is not feeling well it’s nostalgic and brings back good memories.”

The kitchens are always well stocked with the sweet juice, which can reach a patient in a short period of time.

Lasagna is also a big hit throughout the year. During the winter holiday season turkey and dressing, cranberry and apple stuffing and pureed cheesecake make the “most wanted” list.

Smoothies also work well for patients who have difficulty swallowing or cannot tolerate solid food.

The first food employees start their day at 4 a.m., pouring, heating, pureeing, plating and delivering meals to patients. No two days are alike, and special requests come in throughout the day. If someone has an unusual request or a special occasion, Dining Services Manager Terry Parsons and her crew are quick to respond.

They celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with cake and ice cream; offer vegetarian or vegan options for people who want to maintain their dietary preferences even when they are away from home; and deliver foods soon after they hit the plates.

“We love seeing the smiles on patients’ faces,” Parsons said.

Educating Patients 

The job is not without challenges.

“We are always trying to educate people on nutrition and making choices,” says Gina Skaronea, a registered dietitian (RD).

She chose her career path based on her family history. Heart disease and cancer were common themes in her extended family. Her mother encouraged her to choose a career where she could make a difference. “In high school I learned that you can eat something to make you feel better,” Skaronea said.

One of the main misconceptions nutritionists try to overcome is that the only way to lose weight or achieve optimum health is to restrict caloric intake to the point of starvation.

“I tell them, we can’t change the past but starting today we can move forward,” Skaronea says. “We can do little things, like adding fiber. Diets are short lived. We want a lifestyle change.”

Once a patient leaves the hospital, the dietitians’ goal is to encourage them to continue healthy eating habits.

“I want patients to know that we love food, too,” Lovetere says. “We really think about what we send out every day. Patients don’t have a lot of control of a lot of things. What makes them happiest is food.”

Healthy Eating Habits 

  • Add fiber
  • Hydrate (lemon helps with digestion)
  • Add vegetables and fruit daily
  • Do not cut carbohydrates (carbs contain vital nutrients)
  • Reduce salt intake (replace with herbs and spices)