On Our Patients, Our Remedies and Our Failures

"INVALID COOKERY - In preparing food for an invalid, one should bear in mind that it is of the utmost importance that the appetite of the patient be tempted. Large quantities of food should never be served to an invalid. The most attractive dishes procurable should be used, and the linen should be immaculate. A fresh flower adds color and daintiness to the tray. Hot dishes should be served very hot and cold dishes thoroughly chilled. Never ask a patient what he would like for a meal but find out from the doctor what he may have; then surprise the invalid by serving something unexpected, nourishing and dainty." - The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, 1948

Last July, I had the unfortunate task of rushing my Sidekick to the ER with extreme pain from a herniated disc. After six hours, a few morphine shots, and many neighbors in various states of duress, a kind-looking volunteer with an apologetic eye made his way to us.

“Er, would you like dinner?”

He extended a white, cardboard take-out box to me, which I took gratefully. I didn’t know they fed you in the ER. It turns out, there is a reason that people don’t talk about it. A room-temperature carton of 2% milk, a plastic container of canned peaches and a tuna sandwich, the filling of which had turned the color of cement.

Correct me if I’m wrong; these people in the hospital, we’re trying to heal them, no?

I was convinced that this kind of thing was isolated to the desperate and frenetic confines of the Emergency Room and that things would be better when my Sidekick was eventually admitted for more tests and taken upstairs into his own room.

But when breakfast arrived the next morning, I knew things were worse than I could have imagined.  One thing before we continue: I realize that the point of a hospital is not to feed you. And certainly not to feed you luxurious or gourmet meals. You go to a hospital for care, help and medicine. I am not trying to be glib. I wasn’t expecting it to be vacation. But I also wasn’t expecting it to be quite like this.

Western Egg-Bake with Homefries

Breakfast was a yellow, reconstituted egg brick with not-terrible looking homefries, a plastic container of Cheerios, the blackest, scariest coffee I’ve ever seen, non-dairy creamer, a carton of milk that had seen better days and a packet of Mrs. Dash.

If you look closely, you'll probably see a few planets sucked into this thing.

Breakfast, while not really edible, certainly didn’t worry me for the patients’ safety like the ER meal. I began to think that I was over-reacting, although the milk did look like it had been run over by a truck.

Oh, milk? Just throw that anywhere.

But then lunch came. 

Beef Stew with Mashed Potatoes

Let's momentarily put aside the fact that this was the dead of summer and I honestly can not imagine anyone wanting to eat beef stew when it's ninety degrees out, much less anyone who is in a hospital. This is a pile of canned vegetables with some beef thrown in, instant mashed potatoes and the saddest parsley garnish I’ve ever seen. I mean, why are you garnishing this? Is someone eating this parsley as part of their meal? If the function of hospital food is to be totally utilitarian, why are you dropping an upended piece of curly parsley on the side of the plate as if you care? This is essentially soup that you couldn't even be bothered to put in a bowl. 

Lunch was served with an oxidizing iceberg salad in a cup and a packet of Italian dressing, a major ingredient of which was high fructose corn syrup. Synthetic sugar. Soybean oil. Propylene glycol alginate. This is what we're asking our sickest people to eat on the road to their recovery.

Oh, and dessert. With lunch.

It claimed to be banana pudding. When I turned it upside-down with a look of exasperation on my face, it remained stoically in its container, its cratered surface a terrain never to be explored by my Sidekick on my watch.

I am an expert on neither the nuances of hospital funding nor on American medical food policy. I can tell however, even as a layperson on every side of this issue, that something has gone terribly wrong. I know that serving thousands of people with a kaleidoscope of ailments on a daily basis cannot be easy. But why can't we give them real food? Take the beef stew, for example: a good beef stew is one of the simplest, easiest things in the world. You brown meat, thicken with flour, throw in vegetables and stock and simmer basically forever. You can forget about it on the stove. What then emerges is, arguably, one of the most comforting things on the planet. 

Maybe this is just how I'm wired. I'm a Jewish girl with two very good cooks for parents. To me, food is medicine. When something goes wrong, we always ask what we can bring you to eat. It seems like the most basic principle in the world to me: our bodies need fuel, when we are sick or hurt, that fuel needs to be of the highest grade

I will cop to one thing: I can not report on the flavor of this food. Neither my Sidekick nor I tasted a single morsel. I made many journeys to neighboring areas for good meals for both he and I to eat. What about those with no one to run out for them? I can't imagine myself or someone I love being in that position. My heart truly goes out to those people. It's made me sick to my stomach ever since.

The quotation that heads this post is from a recently inherited food encyclopedia from the late 1940s. Use of the word invalid notwithstanding, it has some pretty tender and elegant ideas about how we should treat the infirm. When my grandmother gave me this encyclopedia, she told me a story about a friend of hers whose mother had back surgery around the same time of its publishing: she had to be in a full-body cast in the hospital for nine months.  

When my Sidekick subsequently returned to the hospital for surgery on his back, he was lucky enough to be discharged and home the very same day. Our medical technology has made incredible leaps in those sixty-odd years. The priority of feeding our patients, by comparison, seems to have taken a backseat. Or to have been thrown out the window of a moving car, much like the carton of milk served at breakfast.

Sometimes I think that maybe I'm a little too high on this particular soapbox. Then I remember dinner.

This is supposed to be grilled chicken, in case you were wondering.


  1. I can't get past the packet of Mrs. Dash!

  2. SHR - Mrs. Dash came with breakfast, lunch and dinner! I took a picture of the ingredient list to confirm for myself later that there is, in fact, no salt or msg in it anymore. It's just a really strange mix of dried spices.