Hospital Cafeterias: they should be a Place of Healing

It always amazes me that hospitals have a “tobacco free campus” program but in their cafeteria they sell junk food

Hospital Cafeterias Should Be Used for Rehabilitation and Healing

Every hospital  has a shortage of space, and every hospital uses its space to maximum ability to help patients.  But the most under utilized space for patient health is the hospital cafeteria. While hospitals have dietitians, which they use to help determine patients nutritional status, I’ve never seen a hospital use their chef to teach people to cook. But what I do see in many hospitals is junk food in their cafeteria.

Teaching patients to cook is the one simple thing we can do to help patients avoid the hospital again. A chef can teach a patient with heart disease how to cook a meal with less salt. A chef can teach a cancer patient how to make tasty vegetables that have the phytochemicals in them that help fight cancer. A chef can teach a patient how to portion meals, and fill the plate with healthy alternatives.

But these chefs are not utilized in hospitals for health, for rehabilitation, for preventive teaching. Hospital chefs are well trained, most love to teach, but instead are relegated to making meals for some patients, and the staff.

The Current Reality of Most Hospitals
I’ve had more meals in hospital cafeterias than I care to. In training, living in the hospital for days at a time meant that hospital food was all I had.  On days when I operate on patients, the hospital is where I take my lunch. Now, I am on the board of a couple of hospitals and here is what we really face with hospitals: we tell patients on one hand to eat healthy, while the hospital is selling them junk food.

The Hospitals Have no Idea that the Best Resource for Helping Patients is in their Cafeterias

The hospital governing board meeting was getting started when I asked that a  new item be added to the agenda, to make the hospital a junk-food free campus. We had, several years before, and with a lot of work, made the hospital and the campus a tobacco free campus, but it was time to go after the next major killer in America- obesity. You would think this would be a “slam dunk” for the hospital – but it wasn’t.

As a physician I was shocked – how could we, as a hospital and health-care system, preach health and yet in our cafeteria was the very food that was causing the rising epidemic of obesity that came with a rising incidence of diabetes. They then told me something shocking, “we need guidelines, as to what food is classified as junk food and which isn’t.” Imagine that- the hospital needs guidelines as to what food is junk food.

The hospital CEO asked for time to work with this and come back with a plan.

The next meeting the hospital dietitian showed us a new “energy drink” that would take the place of cola. While she was presenting this drink I did a quick on-line search of it: it had the same numbers of calories as coke, it had slightly more caffeine.  I raised my hand, again, in shock as to how a dietitian would think this was healthy, when, a quick internet search as she was presenting the data, showed it was no better than cola, and perhaps a bit worse.

Utilize this Space and These People

Good Samaritan hospital in Phoenix boasts that it has a physician cafeteria with a wonderful chef who makes their doctors great meals. When the hospital was trying to get me to bring my patients there the “business vice president”  told me that this was one of the “benefits” of bringing my patients to that hospital. I asked if their chef would be available to come to group meetings with my patients to teach them to cook, or if my patients could meet in that cafeteria and have the chef make food and teach them how to do that. This vice-president looked at me with a blank stare, “I have never once been asked that.” Needless to say, I chose not to utilize that hospital

Food Should be Therapy

On the very ill patients hospitals are great at getting dietitians involved to help sort out the therapy they need for feeding patients through an iv, or through a tube. But when it comes to teaching patients what to eat, what to avoid- hospitals fall short, and the hospital should be the best place to teach  a patient.


TPN label

Isn’t it amazing that we know what ingredients to put into intravenous nutrition, but ask a hospital dietician what junk food is and they have no clue

Hospital classrooms are used for support groups for cancer, for weight loss surgery, for cardiac rehabilitation classes, for AA meetings. Hospitals are generous with their space- but one of the single best uses could be cooking classes.

We Spend More Time Teaching Cooking than Operating
More and more physicians are teaching patients how to cook. We spend more time teaching patients to cook than operating on them. It is time for hospitals to assist in this effort.  Today when hospital performance is measured by re-admission rates acutely, but tomorrow hospitals will be defined by who keeps them out not just in 30 days but longer.

Teaching patients how to cook, and what to cook, and what to eat- is the best step modern hospitals can take.

Post Script:

Since I wrote this article one hospital closed its cafeteria – why? Because they were losing money. The one place they could do some good, they cut it out and now serve pure junk food from vending machines. And most hospital administrators look at cafeterias in the same way – cafeterias are a cost not a benefit. So when you are shopping your health care dollars, go to the hospital cafeteria, see what they offer – if it is a good place with healthy food, that is where you should spend your health care dollars. If not, then know that hospital is not interested in your health as much as your dollar.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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Latest Comments

  1. Neal Winkler says:

    The reality is that if they only sold healthy food then the cafeteria would lose tons of money.

  2. thedoc says:

    I don’t think so at all. Healthy restaurants do quite well these days- and hospital cafeterias have a captive audience. There are days when most doctors can only eat there – so can patient families. While junk food does sell and make a profit- people are still hungry, and the hospital can lead the way with great alternatives – teaching patients and their families what to eat.

  3. Lynn says:

    A few months ago, my husband was in a hospital that had a mini mall and one of the shops sold fresh fruits and vegetables and bottled smoothies. It was still possible to buy plenty of junk elsewhere in the hospital but healthy options at least existed. I think that some hospitals also have exercise equipment for staff and people can take out memberships to the physical therapy gym equipment. Some hospitals also promote far away parking to get people to walk to work.
    Because surgical patients are sent home sometimes before their diets advance beyond liquid, they don’t get much hospital food. Medical and maternity patients get a few days of the equivalent of a bad restaurant.

  4. Janette says:

    It’s sad that your hospital’s “dietitian” was so clueless about the energy drink. I’m guessing she’s an older generation dietitian. So much has changed in the past ten years. You need to find dietitians of this generation who are knowledgable about the new food revolution, ie: organic, local produce, green drinks and smoothies for pure energy. We need to utilize enthusiastic and knowledgable Health Coaches, who can take the time to go one on one with a patient and teach them how to grocery shop, read labels, prepare healthy meals, and serve as a chearleader for them! After all, changing your lifestyle is more emotional than anything else. Healthy cooking is rather simple. It doesn’t take a chef to teach someone to use sea salt instead of regular salt, to water sauté in order to use less oil, to bake rather than fry, and how to make green smoothies. When the people are wanting and asking for healthier options, with the influence of a health coach or a knowledgable dietitian, perhaps the hospitals”s “business” department or whatever controls the cafeteria food will listen and add in better food. It’s all about adding in healthier food rather than focusing on getting rid of the junk. Eventually the junk will will get crowded out. Especially when there’s more interest for healthy food nowadays.

  5. Dr Terry Simpson says:

    One hospital recently closed their cafeteria because it wasn’t making enough money. So what do the patients get for meals – outsourced. Such isn’t a hospital, such is a place that doesn’t care about its patients and seeks only profit. Instead of telling the community that they would put together a program of teaching nutrition and helping people – they chose to fire six employees and close the hospital. Do you think that is what the community needs?

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