SW Florida Children's Hospital emphasizes kid-friendly graphics and themes—including "explorer" garb for dietary aids (top)—to make nutrition education more fun for kids.
Tray maps at SW Florida Children's Hospital help illustrate proper portion sizes and meal balance.
Most pediatric hospitals consider nutrition education and healthy food choices to be an ideal that must take a back seat to the immediate concerns of getting sick children to eat enough to nourish their frail bodies. But the high cost of bad nutrition—especially as manifested in the ballooning population of obese American youngsters—has some pediatric institutions feeling a responsibility to add nutrition education to their dietetic mission.
The question, of course, is how. Browbeating sick children into eating their veggies is certainly a non-starter, and in any case most younger patients are not sophisticated enough to learn more than the barest outlines of sound nutrition in the course of the average hospital stay, which is only a few days.
At the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, a unit of the Lee Memorial Health System, the Food & Nutrition Department and an interdisciplinary team that drew participants from the clinical staff, marketing and administration, was challenged a few years ago to come up with a workable solution.
What they designed in response is a room service patient meal ordering system integrated with a five-step process using verbal, written and visual clues to stimulate and educate children about how to eat wisely. The menu choices available to regular-diet patients emphasize low-fat, high-fiber components (nothing is fried). There are alternate menus for children on bland, carbohydrate-controlled and high-calorie/high-protein diets. Take-home materials include large, colorful refrigerators magnets featuring the appropriate diet as well as a recipe booklet for making simple child-friendly treats ("Chocolate Spiders," "Peanut Butter Caterpillars," etc.)
The in-room menu (which won an FM Best Concepts Award earlier this year—see the April issue) is colorful, fun and age-appropriate. Its "explorer" theme is mirrored by the dietary assistants who interact with patients. Dressed in safari attire (the inspiration is the popular children's television program Dora the Explorer), the assistants take meal ordering occasions to gently reinforce nutritional messages through use of the puzzles and games included in the menu.