This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
Going to the hospital can be anxiety-provoking for patients under the best of circumstances. For people with celiac disease and other forms of gluten-sensitivity, the stress of a hospital visit is often compounded by the worry of dining options. When gluten-free choices are available, they often come in the form of flavorless frozen meals or snack items like gelatin cups. Faced with unappetizing choices, many people on gluten-free diets turn to loved ones to provide home-cooked meals or takeout from a favorite restaurant but relying on friends and family isn’t always possible.
Why serve gluten-free? It’s the right thing to do and the time is ripe.
In a market short on gluten-free options, hospitals that provide appetizing, well-rounded gluten-free meals can differentiate themselves. In addition to gaining a competitive advantage, your organization can improve patient outcomes and mental well-being by serving gluten-free dishes, leading to increased profitability in this era of value-based care. However, providing gluten-free options goes beyond the financial benefits. Hospitals have an obligation to look after the safety of patients with dietary restrictions, who can suffer serious health consequences if they eat the wrong thing.
Prior to COVID-19, many hospitals were in the process of revamping their menus by adding more gluten-free options, fresh foods and other enhancements to their patient menus. However, when the pandemic hit, hospitals were faced with overcrowded ICUs, staffing shortages and social distancing requirements that stretched resources to capacity. Given the circumstances, it’s understandable that the focus shifted to prioritizing providing critical care over retooling patient menus.
With the introduction of several vaccines and falling infection rates happening nationwide, hospitals can once again turn their attention to improving the quality of their food programs. Moreover, many of the innovations introduced during the pandemic, like robotics and contactless delivery, can facilitate the launch of a successful gluten-free program by reducing the risk of cross-contact during food preparation and service.
Three tips for launching your gluten-free program.
While some hospitals have devoted significant resources to state-of-the-art dining with dedicated kitchens for preparing gluten-free dishes, you don’t have to break the bank to offer wholesome, tasty, gluten-free choices. Providing balanced meals that include a protein, starch and a vegetable can whet patient appetites while keeping expenses and effort to a minimum, particularly if you forgo elaborate preparations in favor of simple dishes. Very often, these dishes can serve as the foundation for your entire food program, with kitchen staff making a few tweaks to adapt meals for patients who have special dietary needs.
If you do offer gluten-free options, make sure you train staff in how to prevent cross-contact. Your training program should walk kitchen staff and servers through each phase of preparation, foodservice and clean-up so that staff members understand best practices for keeping the gluten out of gluten-free dishes. For example, your staff should always store gluten-free ingredients and equipment on the top shelves of kitchen pantries and place meals on the top shelves of delivery carts. Using lids to cover dishes will also reduce the potential for cross-contact.
Having your service audited by an organization that validates gluten-free foodservice can be a great resource in developing a gluten-free program. In addition to auditing your processes, these organizations can provide training materials and help you design your curriculum, as well as assisting with the development of written policies and procedures. Organizations like the Mayo Clinic, which was recently validated by Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS), have successfully launched high-end gluten-free programs with good results, but even organizations with simpler objectives can benefit from validation. When it comes to implementing gluten-free programs, one size does not fit all so there is room to customize.
You’ve decided to offer a gluten-free menu. Now what?
As hospitals return to pre-COVID routines, launching a gluten-free food program is one way you can reassure patients that you prioritize their well-being. To get started, eliminate guesswork and decision-making from your food chain by preparing written procedures for food handling and have a qualified dietitian design a set menu. To get patient feedback, include questions about dietary restrictions as part of your intake process and use the information to develop and finetune your gluten-free program. Taking this step has the added benefit of empowering patients who may be shy about speaking up to advocate for their food preferences.
If the prospect of developing a menu from scratch feels daunting as you return to standard operations, consider bringing in a foodservice management company that offers gluten-free meals. Just make sure you select a company that provides well-rounded dishes and follows protocol for preventing cross-contact. Requiring foodservice management companies to audit their programs through validation can provide added peace of mind that you are taking the necessary steps to assure patient safety.
If you had to triage priorities during the pandemic, now is the perfect time to revisit initiatives for improving patient experience, including revamping your food program to accommodate people with special dietary needs. Going back to basics when creating gluten-free dishes, training your staff in preventing cross-contact and validating your gluten-free program are three things you can do to make sure your foodservice makes a full recovery in a post-COVID world.
Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service Program Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group. She has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants.