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Your Hospital Food Sucks Because I'm Not Allowed to Taste It

Working at a hospital is sometimes gory, sometimes tragic, and sometimes uplifting. But most importantly, it's not my fault that the food's gross.
May 21, 2015, 9:00pm

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. This time, we spoke to a worker in a hospital kitchen, who shared some of the sad, gory, hopeful, and lesser-known aspects of feeding the sick.

Patients don't really know what goes on in my kitchen. I work in a hospital kitchen preparing trays assembly-line-style, washing the dishes, or delivering food to patients' rooms. Usually, I'm delivering to people who are recovering from surgery. The higher-ups are really strict about getting the right tray to the right person, because if a person gets the wrong tray you can get in a lot of trouble—especially if they're diabetic, or have allergies or other food requirements. There's a ticket on each tray that shows exactly what's on it and where it's supposed to go.

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There are two kinds of meals: The first is "nonselect," which means everyone gets the same things, and the second is meals from the menu. The nonselect meals vary every day, but are usually something like broccoli, mashed potatoes, corn, fish, and green beans … what is considered generally "healthy food." But weirdly, one day a week is always chicken and macaroni and cheese day. Go figure.

When patients get the regular, nonselect meals, they usually tell me that they're really gross. Because it has to be the same for every patient—and is sugar-free and and low-fat—it might not look or sound appealing. I have sometimes heard that it tastes good, but of course, it's hard to say for sure. Even though we put all the food together, we're strictly forbidden from eating any of it. Actually, we can't eat any food downstairs in the prep area or outside of the hospital café at all.

The complex is really big and it's hard to navigate around. It's a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art hospital, but when I'm delivering trays, every floor looks pretty much the same. I deliver to about 150 people every day, and we only get three minutes per person. If you take longer with one patient it cuts into your time for the rest of the day. I'm essentially on my feet from the moment my shift starts to when I leave. It took me a little while to learn the shortcuts of the hospital and how to get around to rooms quicker.

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Patients don't always understand how crunched for time I am. Sometimes they'll ask me to feed them, but I'm not allowed to touch any of the patients—a nurse has to do that. But I'm not even allowed to say "I can't" or "no," so I have to beat around the bush instead. It's a hospital rule that's supposed to make the patient happier—no one likes being told no. Instead of that, I just say, "What I can do is…" and offer an alternative. But if there's something really serious, I just call the nurse. A lot of patients who are older and confused need help going to the bathroom and will ask me, but I'm not really allowed to do that.

I don't have enough time with the patients to make friends with them, but I do have one favorite. She's an older woman in the psych ward, where I'll deliver snacks on the evening shift. She's been in here a long time and knows all the hospital gossip. People obviously don't want to be cooped up in there for long periods of time like she is, but she tries to make the most of it. Sometimes, I guess the nurses are kind of rude to her, so when she asks, I'll try to sneak her an extra snack. Her favorites are peanut-butter crackers or Rice Krispies treats. It's not much, but I'm glad I can do something for her.

Delivering to the intensive care unit can be difficult—it's pretty sad in there. People are hooked up to masks and wires and stuff, in a bad state, and you can see how they got hurt, bandages, and occasionally open wounds. It's gory. If they're out of it, I just leave the tray on the table and walk out so I don't disturb them.

I think it's a lot easier for the nurses to deal with that stuff because they can get involved. If something happens, I have to call a nurse and watch the patient suffer until they get there. Of course, nurses have more training to deal with things like that.

Sometimes, patients will yell at me. One guy got mad because we had two types of cookies and he thought there was a third (there wasn't) and that I just wasn't letting him have the flavor he wanted. He was hooked up to a bunch of monitors, and I could actually see his blood pressure spiking on the screen.

It's hard to move down the hall after something like that happens, because I'm still thinking about it. But I always just have to trust the nurses to get everything under control.

As told to Tove Danovich