Families should not need to fret over how their loved ones will be fed during a hospital stay.
That was the sentiment behind the decision by Minnesota’s St. Cloud Hospital to add halal options to its menu. A hospital stay is stressful enough, both for the patient and the patient’s family. For patients whose food preferences are dictated by their religion, being able to find meals that meet their needs can be another source of stress.
Hani Jacobson knows first-hand how that feels. Her mother, a Muslim, adheres to a halal diet. During a hospital stay several years ago, Jacobson recalls the hassle of bringing her mother meals.
“I was already worried about her health and the healing process, and I understand how food is part of that healing. But we didn’t have a halal option,” says Jacobson, a community health specialist for CentraCare, the system that includes St. Cloud Hospital.
Jacobson saw an opportunity to fill that gap. “My job is to go out into the community to promote health and wellness,” she says. “I talk to people and see what their needs are and how we can improve our services, and a common issue that came up is that we don’t have food options for in-patients.”
“We have a large population of Muslims in this area,” Jacobson continues. “We found that a lot of Muslim patients, especially seniors and those who are more religious, were having their families bring food from home.”
Jacobson connected with Tracy Hennen, the hospital’s director of nutrition services, and they teamed up with sous chef Kyle Wesenberg to develop and test halal options for in-patients. Tasting menus were developed and critiqued during the spring, although because of COVID-19 restrictions the tastings weren’t group events.
Local Muslims helped Wesenberg narrow down the choices from recipes in Morrison Healthcare’s database, providing guidance on flavor profiles and preparation guidelines.
“They told us what they liked, and we took our recipes and tried them. We had the team try them first, then other employees and people in the community,” Wesenberg says. “There was a lot of trial and error, and at the end of it we picked three solid proteins, a couple of rice sides and some vegetable dishes.”
The choices include Chicken Suqaar, Beef Masala and Chicken Shawarma, along with naan and rice dishes. They are listed on a separate insert to the menu.
“We’ve had a really good response,” Wesenberg says. And it’s not just Muslim patients who have been receptive. Vegetarians and those who avoid gluten or follow low-carb diets have found the options appealing, as have those who enjoy curry and Middle Eastern spices. Patient visitors are also able to order the halal meals for in-room dining.
In the weeks following its introduction in late July, the menu has generated at least five or six orders per day, with a few more each week, and feedback has been positive.
The hospital’s regular suppliers have been able to provide halal or halal-friendly ingredients. Training the staff to prepare the dishes has focused primarily on avoiding cross-contamination.
“Kyle set up training sessions with the cooks and purchased color-coded knives and cooking supplies so the food would not come in contact with pork,” Hennen says. Tickets entered into the ordering system clearly specify halal to alert the staff to prepare those meals based on established protocols.
If the initial halal options continue to grow in popularity, the menu may be expanded. Wesenberg says he has been talking with the hospital’s retail side about making a halal option available to the public and staff as well.