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Hospital food, reimagined: Emerging trends in healthcare foodservice

Food Trends, Foodservice, Healthcare Foodservice

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The world of foodservice becomes particularly complicated inside the walls of a hospital, senior living center or long-term care facility. Patients and residents often have specific dietary needs, but they also demand flavor and diversity in their food that counters the stereotype bland institutional fare. Employees and visitors alike also demand tasty, fresh food, but they can often have vastly different ideas about what the food is and how it’s prepared and delivered. Pleasing all these groups is a challenging balance to achieve, and it complicates everything from sourcing to menu planning to branding. 

Datassential’s recent Healthcare Foodservice Keynote Report unveils critical insights into how facilities care for patients, visitors, and employees. Here’s a sneak peek at the key findings: 


More choices = Higher food priority

Two thirds of patients/residents have some degree of choice when it comes to where they choose to get care, and the more choices they have, the more important food becomes.  


Those in senior living and long-term care centers have the widest range of choices for consumers and their families and are most likely to consider food options in making the decision. In fact, 42% of long-term care/senior-living residents say they considered food options early in the selection process. 


And broadly, 41% of all patients/residents at least somewhat considered the food options before deciding where to get care, and a quarter of consumers closely considered them. 


Food has a big impact on satisfaction


Two-thirds of consumers say the food offerings were important to their overall care experience, while nearly 80% of long-term care/senior-living residents agreed. Medical care is of course a high priority for people, especially hospital patients, but food and nutrition are a key part of general well-being and have a big impact on the overall experience. 


And you can’t have a much bigger influence on consumers than with healthcare foodservice, because 81% of patients/residents have all their meals on-site. Food is also a high point of the day for many in the healthcare sphere, particularly residents in senior facilities. Food is about so much more than just nutrition: it’s about how patients and residents feel valued and connected – key priorities for any healthcare setting. 


Taste trumps nutrition


Just because consumers are eating at a healthcare facility doesn’t mean they want flavor thrown out the window. Nearly half (47%) would rather have tasty food, with just 11% saying they would much rather have nutritious food than tasty food.

And although nutrition remains a top priority, operators and suppliers may be best served by thinking about taste first and nutrition second, such as revamping familiar comfort foods with more healthful ingredients, than trying to design a plate or a menu the other way around. 


Employees require a whole different level of attention


Just over one-third of employee meals are from on-site offerings. Most employee meals are brought from home, though nearly 20% of healthcare employees are getting their food from an off-site provider. These employees may be one of the biggest opportunities for growth in healthcare foodservice, and attempts should be made to create menus that better entices and appeals to them while also competing price-wise with off-site options. Loyalty bonuses that use discounts for staying in-house to eat have the highest interest with employees. 


Healthcare menu decisions are complicated


All foodservice operators are under constant pressure to put new things on the menu. But in healthcare, that urgency is matched with a constant struggle on which patron to please: the patient/resident, or the employee/visitor. 

Nearly half are using different menus for those two groups – not including the differences in dining venue formats and service styles. 

Employee/visitor menus have more frequent new offerings than patient/resident menus while patient/resident menus are planned further ahead of time. What’s more, every aspect (menu, kitchen, and decision-makers) is more likely to be different today than it was just a few years ago, highlighting that things are only getting more complex, not less.


COVID-19 is changing healthcare foodservice — for now and perhaps forever.


Healthcare operators have long prepared for disasters. And even though they aren’t scrambling in the way an outsider might expect, businesses have still been turned upside down.

Some hospitals in areas hardest high by the fast-spreading coronavirus are at capacity and struggling with limited beds. Other healthcare facilities have eliminated elective surgeries and are preparing for a surge in patients but may first be dealing with reduced occupancy rates — some as low as 50% capacity. Visitor meals have largely stopped. Many employees are remote. For essential employees still on-site, foodservice can be a lifeline that serves to both keep them fed while they work long hours trying to save lives and serves as a morale booster and community builder. 


Shifting priorities


COVID has affected nearly every one and every business in the world. In healthcare foodservice, the top priority has now shifted from innovation to basic product availability. 

For example, operators are less focused on getting grass-fed beef, and rather simply want to know if they can keep a hamburger on the menu. 

They are looking to streamline, simplify, and minimize disruptions. Many are moving to more limited menus and offerings. Retail and grab-and-go may be a short-term area of growth as operators look to supply critical employees with quick food alternatives that limit perceived COVID-19 contamination risks. 


Samantha Des Jardins is a copywriter at Datassential.

To learn more about the Healthcare Foodservice Keynote Report, email