Hospital stays are never easy for kids and their families. But the dining services team at Children’s of Alabama Birmingham knows that food can be a bright spot, especially when familiar favorites are served in a friendly, soothing environment.
“Food is the one thing that kids recognize when they stay with us. It’s associated with comfort, they know it’s not going to be uncomfortable,” says Gavin Boinski, Director of Food Services with Aramark, who heads Children’s of Alabama’s dining services program. “So we like to go above and beyond to make our patients happy.”
When a patient has a craving for something particular, members of Boinski’s team do everything they can to deliver. “We once had a patient where all they ate was Dinty Moore stew, so we ran out and got a bunch of those. Or another time we ran to KFC because a child likes that kind of mashed potatoes and gravy,” Boinski recalls.
More often though, patients are happy to order from the hospital’s room service menu, which aims to balance comfort with nutrition. Breakfast is offered all day because it’s a perennial hit with the children. “It’s kid-friendly stuff they can recognize. If a child wants chocolate chip pancakes or French toast sticks before they go to bed, they can get them. And those two are always favorites,” Boinski says.
Patients can select from full entrees like meatball subs, baked fish sticks, macaroni and cheese, or cheese quesadillas. Build-your-own pizzas, sandwiches, and grill options offer the opportunity to customize. Those who just want something small can choose from a range of standalone items, from fresh fruit or toast, to sweet potato fries or buttered pasta, to sweets like cookies or pudding. There are even Goldfish crackers and Rice Krispie treats.
The kid-friendly comfort concept is applied to the hospital’s special dietary menus too, including menus for low-fat, low-sodium, and fiber-restricted diets; toddler menus with pre-cut foods in smaller portions; and menus for children with chewing or swallowing limitations.
Patients eager to try something new can take advantage of Little Chefs, a rotating menu of monthly specials. “It can be interesting for patients who are here longer term and want to have something different,” Boinski says.
No matter the order, staff are trained to be flexible with patients’ sometimes changing palates. “Kids sometimes order something and by the time it get there they’ve changed their mind. So if they do, we’ll bring them something new,” says Boinski, who encourages his employees to think of the patients as if they were an employee’s own child, niece or nephew, or grandchild.
Boinski knows that the presentation of a meal or snack is just as important as the food itself. That’s why all of the meals at Children’s of Alabama are delivered on carts that have been wrapped with kid-friendly designs like jungle animals, fish, and even one deemed the Monster Storage Unit. “It was a minimal investment of $400 to wrap all eight of our carts,” notes Boinski, who says that patients respond to the whimsical delivery vehicles with more enthusiasm. “Even when we’re rolling them down the hallway, parents will stop and comment on them,” he says.
Lunch deliveries come with activity booklets to keep patients busy and take their minds off of all things medical for a little while. “It has puzzles, crosswords, mazes, those kinds of things to do, aimed at the majority of our age group,” Boinski says. “We usually send it up with crayons.”
Implementing the kid-friendly room service menu and program has helped dining services do even better on their mission of making patients happy. In fact, patient satisfaction scores rose from 70% to 88%, Boinski notes. “It came down to the quality of the food and them getting more of what they wanted,” he says. “Parents tell us, ‘he looks so forward when you’re coming with that cart.’”
In addition to looking forward to those fun, friendly meal deliveries, patients get excited about visiting with ACE, the hospital’s furry mascot character. Wearing a red t-shirt, khaki pants, and big grin, the chummy fox who loves making kids smile while teaching them about nutrition. It’s important information for patients to take along when they head home so they can make healthy choices. But if they’d rather stick with the feel-good favorites while in the hospital, Boinski and his team will always bring up a plate of pancakes for a sweet nighttime snack.