Room service is a trend that's not slowing down. There are many good reasons that so many hospital nutrition departments have made the switch: satisfaction from patients, who appreciate being able to control their meal preferences and timing; greater choice from the menu; improved food quality and service temperatures; and the reduction of food waste.
With these advantages, hospital staff is able to give each patient a better experience.
“Our thought process is ‘One meal, one person.’ We prepare a lot of meals, but we think of it as individually as we can,” says Steven Hiatt, food service director, Oregon Health & Science University Hospital. Good ingredients simply prepared and minimally processed foods make up the forward-facing menu at this Portland institution. (see OHSU's great simple salmon recipe, next page).
When operators develop a room service menu, “the very first thing we do is look at the demographics of the hospital. We sit down and get a feel for the location, and for the people,” says Gary T. Conley, president and co-founder of Room Service Technologies, a firm that has been helping clients design, develop and implement room service programs since 2002.
For example, Conley discovered a very sophisticated demographic when he worked with Mark Eggleston, director of hospitality services at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, WA.
The hospital, located in Microsoft country, has a population at any given day made up of mostly affluent people who are very cultured. They have high expectations for the menu, and look for local, sustainable menu items.
“Our menu distinguishes us from other hospitals,” Eggleston says. “We offer an artisan cheese plate and lox and bagels in the morning. We have really focused on incorporating natural, organic and local menu fare wherever possible.
Conley has been in the business of healthcare foodservice systems for 27 years, and has lectured internationally on the topic. We asked him what he is seeing on room service menus at the most up-to-date facilities.
“Room service menus today can rival those of the best restaurants in town. We see talented staff following the trend towards local foods and sustainability. Old school ‘hospital food’ was putting three dollops of something on a plate. Now, we try to exceed the restaurants. You can't always do it, but it's good to have that goal.
“A seasonal menu highlights fresh local food at Overlake. There is a bakery in town that produces artisan breads, and people in the area know that it's made by a proprietor who has been there for 50 years.
“The hospital puts that bakery's name on the menu. Anytime you can denote something that is local, that people recognize, that's a huge plus for the room service menu.
“Another facility on the west coast that we've worked with is Oregon Health and Science University Hospital. It's a phenomenal place. Patients there also expect fresh, local foods. They named their program ‘Oregon Fresh’ and they feature as many fresh items as they can.
“A great way any hospital can offer fresh foods, that any hospital can do, is to create a basic entrée salad. Then, you take that salad and make it four different ways for each season by changing the toppings. In the winter, maybe you'll have root vegetables. In the summer, you could use local tomatoes or berries, and then maybe apples for late summer. And you can offer artisan cheese on salads all year round.
“You can use that idea of changing out topping seasonally for an entrée of grilled chicken breast, too. Grilled chicken breast is a star menu item on many room service menus.
“One trend is to stop garnishing plates in the traditional sense, where you would place an orange slice on a plate. A better approach is to create something like a fruit relish instead. If it's not edible as part of the meal, it doesn't belong on the plate.
“Don't use a salt shaker on the tray. We use as many fresh herbs as possible. Many hospitals are trying to have herb gardens on campus.
“The American Fork Hospital in Utah has a garden outside the cafeteria with orange trees, and they are thinking about starting an herb garden, too. Even if you can't plant herbs, you can usually find local produce vendors who carry basil, tarragon, rosemary, etc., and that's not too expensive.
“Menu items should be simple. Especially since a lot of people that we train do not have that much background in single-serve production. Our chef has each worker make each plate that's on the menu. You want them to say, ‘That was easy.’
Trends: Simple Lunches, Variety for Longer-Term Patients and Plenty of Salmon
Since room service kicked off three years ago, Walther Thurnhofer, director of support services at the University of Washington Medical Center, has honed in on what patients are looking for.
One surprise has been the popularity of simple lunchtime fare, like salads, deli sandwiches and soups. “The vast majority (around 75 to 90 percent) of patients go for the simple, cold lunches,” Thurnhofer observes. “At dinner time, the trend reverses itself. We figured patients would order at least as many hot entrees at lunchtime, but that has never been the case here.”
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Listed under “Regional Northwest Specialties” on the roomservice menu, salmon is “far and away” the most popular entrée, he adds. The hospital staff prepares fresh salmon every day, and it's served with a warm cranberry vinaigrette.
The typical acute care patient at the hospital is very ill and/or very injured, Thurnhofer says, and many stay for more than two weeks at a time. He has worked out the menu accordingly, to ensure enough variety exists for such customers.
“We did have to write a bigger menu,” he says. The Lunch and Dinner menu features four regional favorite entrees; the International Market section includes enchiladas, Thai basil stir fry and more; the Family Favorites section includes well-loved comfort foods and a mix-and-match pasta feature among other items.
Specials are offered to any patient who stays for more than two weeks, Thurnhofer says.
“Adding a weekly special list gives them a few more choices,” he says. “Even though we have a big menu, they can get bored with it; this gives them something more.”
What to Look For in a Great Room Service Menu Item
Thurnhofer and the staff at the University of Washington Medical Center find menu ideas all around, and often look through magazines for ideas. When considering a recipe, here are several characteristics that make a good room service menu item:
Avoid foods that must be prepared and served immediately in order to be good.
Look for things that can hold up for 20 to 30 minutes, in case a floor delivery needs to accommodate additional orders.
Look for colorful ingredients. This signifies good nutrition and also makes the plate look great.
Choose menu items that can be made — and made well — one order at a time.
The cost of ingredients is always an issue. Don't choose an item with such costly ingredients that you may have to cut corners and serve a not-so-great dish.
“If you can't do it right, don't do it,” Thurnhofer advises.
Avoid items that are so trendy that people may not ‘get it’ or even be interested six months from now.
Look for middle-of-the-road trends with bigger appeal to more people.
A Flip-Book Menu
Krista Schaefer, MS, RD, LD, administrative dietitian at Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, is working on a flip-book menu with lots of photos to make ordering easier. The flipbook should be great for children and anyone who has trouble reading or seeing.
“The flipbook will accompany the OHSU room service menus. We are designing it to showcase all of the different entrée and side options available,” Schaefer says. “We will also be adding nutrition facts and an ingredient list so that patients can use that information to make more educated meal selections.”