What’s Cooking in Healthcare and Hospital Food Service? More Plant-Based Meals

Sharon Palmer, the Plant-Powered Dietitian explains benefits

NYC Health + Hospitals, the largest public healthcare system in the country, recently announced they will offer a Meatless Monday “chef’s choice” option to inpatients at all 11 acute-care hospitals. This is big news. Hospital dietitians will counsel patients on the benefits of a plant-based diet as they’re making their meal choices for the day.

Sharon Palmer
Sharon Palmer, RD, one of the pioneers of plant-based nutrition and author of three books on plant-power, developed the Oldways Plant Forward Plates Healthcare Toolkit.

Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of The Plant Powered Diet, spoke about the benefits of a plant-based diet for hospital inpatients and the growing interest in plant-based foods. Palmer has focused on plant-based eating for much of her career.  She is an active representative of Oldways, a food and nutrition nonprofit dedicated to inspiring individuals and organizations to embrace the “old ways” of eating. Sharon led the development of their Plant-Forward Plates Healthcare Toolkit, which includes 40 plant-based recipes that are designed to be scaled up for a food service setting.

Oldways is a member of the Coalition for Plant-Based Food in Hospitals. Other members are the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Humane Society of the United States, and Meatless Monday. The Coalition provides support, resources, and hands-on trainings to hospital culinary teams to help them provide more plant-based meals.

I interviewed Sharon to learn more about why hospitals are promoting plant-based options and how this trend will unfold in the years to come.

What’s sparking the interest of hospitals in joining the plant-based movement?

The evidence supporting a plant-based diet to help prevent, treat, and manage some of the most prevalent diseases in the nation is growing. So, it’s only natural that healthcare facilities of all types would be interested in adding plant-based offerings to their menus. Some states are even mandating that these options be made available.

Could you elaborate on the key reasons for putting plants on healthcare menus?

In the United States, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of hospitalization and is the cause of 1 in 3 deaths. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and high cholesterol also contribute to a significant amount of hospital stays and are leading causes of mortality in the country. One commonality among these illnesses is that they all have modifiable risk factors, which include diet. Many studies have shown that following a plant-based diet is associated with lower risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Yet many hospitals have offered unhealthful food choices that contradict the healing environment that healthcare providers work so hard to foster. Fortunately, this concept is changing, as more hospitals desire to become leaders of change in the community, both for health and environmental footprint.

You mentioned that some states are even mandating that plant-based options be made available. Can you elaborate?

Yes, legislation is catching up with the times. In 2018, California passed Senate Bill 1138, requiring hospitals to make plant-based meals that don’t include any animal products available to all patients. New York passed a similar bill in February 2019, mandating that hospitals offer plant-based meals and snacks to patients upon request at no additional cost. More states may follow in New York and California’s footsteps, making plant-based foods a required option for patients across the nation.

Plant Forward Plates Healthcare Toolkit
The Oldways Healthcare Toolkit includes the information food service professionals need to provide delicious, therapeutic plant-based meal options in hospital and healthcare food service settings. https://oldwayspt.org/programs/plant-forward-plates

How can hospital food service operators get started incorporating plant-based options on their menus for patients?

Food service staff in hospitals and healthcare facilities can take advantage of the many free resources that are becoming more available to help them offer more plant-based meal options. There are even free trainings, notably the one offered by the Humane Society of the United States.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also provides free and low-cost continuing education at NutritionCME.org, a Nutrition Guide for Clinicians, designed for healthcare professionals, as well as a 21-day Vegan Kickstart meal planning app and a Vegan Starter Kit for anyone who’s looking to begin a plant-based lifestyle in other walks of life.

Meatless Monday is another nonprofit that offers a complete implementation guide that explains the benefits of introducing a plant-based program and provides specific strategies for success.

How can hospitals train foodservice culinarians?

One effective solution comes from the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) Food and Nutrition team, which works with hospitals and other institutions to make plant-based options more readily available. It has developed a comprehensive program called Forward Food Culinary Nutrition Training.

According to Karla Dumas, RDN, LDN, director of food and nutrition at HSUS, the free virtual culinary nutrition workshop for nutrition and health professionals and culinary teams examines the latest research on chronic disease prevention through plant-based diets. At the training, an RD, along with the HSUS chef, will work with foodservice and health professionals, reviewing the latest science behind plant-based dietary patterns and their role in disease prevention. The training also identifies strategies that empower clients to put more plants on their plate. Participants have the opportunity to prepare a variety of quick and delicious plant-based meals and receive continuing education credits. For more information about the training, visit https://www.forwardfood.org/

Sharon, looking ahead to 2023, what role will plant-based foods have in healthcare settings?

I am optimistic that hospitals across the country will make inspiring strides towards a more plant-based future next year and beyond. By offering patients nourishing plant-focused meals, the healthcare industry will decrease costs to institutions, pave the way to a more sustainable planet, and encourage healing.

Links to Hospital and Healthcare Resources:

Free Foodservice Resources from Meatless Monday: Whether you provide food services to college campuses, K-12 schools or other large institutions, Meatless Monday can help you promote delicious plant-based options. It’s easy to participate; just encourage your diners to give up meat one day a week. We provide the following toolkits for free, and also have a variety of promotional assets available for download. Check out our materials at the website

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