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Patient dining is a booming concern at Mary Free Bed, which tends to see near-capacity in-patient counts.

Mary Free Bed brings dining in-house with new onsite café and patient meal production

Rehab hospital now can create and serve its own high-quality dishes to feed patients, staff and visitors.

Mary Free Bed is a 167-bed rehab hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., that has just taken a giant leap in the quality and service of its meal program. That’s because the hospital no longer has to transport patient meals over from the adjacent, unaffiliated Mercy Health St. Mary’s Hospital or have its staff trek over there to grab a bite to eat, because it lacked its own kitchen and café facilities.

Last December, the first phase of Mary Free Bed’s transformation of its meal service from externally provided to internally produced and served began with the opening of an onsite production kitchen that is now turning out almost completely scratch-cooked meals for patients at all meal periods. That allows Mary Free Bed to offer an expanded, dedicated menu that is more suitable for its patient population, which has an average length of stay of 15 to 19 days, as opposed to the two to four days at acute-care St. Mary’s, where menu cycles consequently are also shorter.

With patient dining securely handled in-house, Mary Free Bed then turned to addressing its retail dining, formally debuting its new onsite multi-station café the first week of May after a soft opening the previous week.

For a photo tour of the new facilities and menu at Mary Free Bed, go here.

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Mary Free Bed is a 167-bed rehab hospital that recently began operating its own in-house patient and retail dining through a partnership with Unidine.

The moves are dramatic signs of the increased emphasis the hospital is putting on having a quality dining program. To satisfy that need, management company Unidine, led by Executive Chef Todd Veenstra, has put together a program that combines an expanded range of options with an emphasis on both quality and healthfulness. Veenstra, with some 30 years as a chef in venues ranging from restaurants to senior living communities and corporate dining programs, seems to have found a home in his first hospital assignment.

“What I really enjoy about Mary Free Bed is that the food is part of the healing process for the people who come here,” he offers. As for meeting the necessary dietary restrictions and nutritional requirements, he works with Clinical Nutrition Manager Corinthia Sain and her team to adapt traditional, popular dishes. Sain says it’s not as restrictive as one might think.

“Ultimately, it’s more about proper portioning than restricting,” she suggests. “Everything in moderation. In addition to scratch cooking where you use fresh, healthy ingredients, just serving the correct portion sizes makes many dishes available to a lot of different diets.”


Satisfying different patient diets

Patient dining is a booming concern at Mary Free Bed, which tends to see near-capacity in-patient counts. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been running between 85% and 88% in terms of average daily census. During Michigan’s COVID surges, that actually increased to between 95% and 100%, and there were even some weeks when it was over 100%, thanks to additional temporary beds. On average over the past fiscal year, the overall census has been at 89%.

To feed all these patients, Veenstra, Sain and the Unidine team created a menu that includes a number of always-available standards accompanied by daily specials that include a soup, sandwich, entrée and dessert of the day. These collectively represent nearly half the lunch and dinner orders on any given day, Veenstra estimates.

“That’s the goal,” he notes. Meanwhile, “we try to make sure there are items on the always-available menu that are favorites and are consistent, like the comfort food meatloaf and mashed potatoes and the stir-fries that are generally among the most popular always-available choices.”

The always-available section of the patient menu is flexible enough to accommodate seven different diets, offering choices appropriate for each.

“We take all those diets into consideration on the overall menu and try to offer a little bit of everything,” Sain explains. “The big thing with Unidine is that we cook most of our foods from scratch, so we really don’t have to have a huge separate menu for, say, patients who are on a low-sodium diet because we are already monitoring what we put in. For example, we use more fresh herbs and spices instead of a lot of preservatives. That means patients have more of a variety to choose from naturally because of how we do things here.”

The result is that with the exception of very restricted diets like mechanical and renal, most adult patients—child patients have a separate pediatric menu—see the same general menu, with icons indicating appropriateness for different restricted diets “just to give those patients some guidelines,” Sain says.

As for the daily specials, Veenstra tries to create enticing but healthy choices, such as roasted pork loin. “We try to use products that are in season and those that we hear people want to have, and then I work with Corinthia to make sure we offer them as part of a balanced diet.”

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The new retail café offers four food stations plus a grab-and-go section.

A brand-new cafe

The new café is on the same floor as—actually, just across the hall from—the kitchen, so all the prep can be done there and quickly brought over for finishing at the individual stations, which include a grill, action station, pizza station and deli station. There is also a grab-and-go concept called Fresh & Good with an array of freshly made sandwiches, salads and snacks as well as more specialty selections like a charcuterie box, a salami & cheese cup and a maple pecan apple yogurt parfait.

Other than Fresh & Good, the stations currently operate as staff-serve due to continuing pandemic-related restrictions. Veenstra says he hopes at some point to introduce a self-serve salad bar, but until then, the approach is to have outlets like the grill and pizza stations operate with a set menu supplemented with specials of the day. For instance, the first week will see the pizza station offering a variety of naan bread pizzas, a calzone of the day like ham & cheese or Buffalo chicken, and a pasta dish of the day like cavatelli with vegetables or penne/sausage pomodoro bake.

Meanwhile, the action station will help compensate for the lack of a salad bar by offering build-your-own salads made to order with protein toppings such as broiled salmon fillet, shrimp skewer, herb-marinated chicken and crispy baked tofu.

“I’m really excited to get the action station going the way we wanted because then we’ll really be able to offer things like noodle and grain bowls where people can mix and match the ingredients they want,” Veenstra notes.

In addition to sandwiches and wraps like pulled chimichurri chicken and roast beef & cheddar wrap, the deli station offers two daily soups that range from housemade garden veg and tomato Florentine to potato chowder, mushroom barley and chunky turkey chili. Veenstra says he envisions the deli eventually having partially built sandwiches that will be ready to be custom finished with the diner’s choice of additions.

The deli station also incorporates a section called Carve that will serve daily entree specials like meatloaf, Latin pork shoulder, kielbasa sausage, apricot ginger chicken and Parmesan baked cod, each accompanied by a starch and protein that complements the protein.

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Both the patient and retail menus emphasize healthful choices made from scratch.

Healthy choices are emphasized at all stations. For instance, while the grill does offer French fries, side options also include salads, while the protein choices include a turkey or veggie burger in addition to the traditional beef patty. Also, the housemade chicken tenders are only briefly deep-fried to give them that appealing crispy coating, but then finished by baking in an oven.

“Some of the menu will also be cross-utilized between in-patient and [retail] because the food they were producing for the patients is the kind of quality we want everyone to have,” Veenstra explains. Of course, it is also a good way to generate efficiencies in food preparation, he adds.

He also notes that the dining operation plans to start slowly in the café to get a feel for the customer base’s preferences. It will be open to anyone in the building—staff and visitors as well as patients.

“The cafe is engineered to be wheelchair-accessible, so patients can also come down, and eventually, when the weather gets nicer, we’ll have outdoor seating also,” Veenstra says.

Operating hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There’s a possibility that the café’s self-checkout kiosk, which supplements the two manned checkout stations, will open for extended hours at some point to allow off-hours staff to get items from the grab-and-go section outside of regular serving hours.

“It is something that will be determined based on need going forward,” Veenstra says, “but right now, we’re just going to go the seven to seven.”

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