ATHENS, Ga. Once upon a time, hospital patients had to stomach dinners of lukewarm chicken-a-la king with a scoop of canned mixed fruit on the side.
Probably better grub than the food served to prisoners, but not by much.
All that is changing, though.
Today, many hospitals dish out restaurant-quality meals with menus as diverse as the tastes and nutritional needs of the patients, visitors and hospital staff.
Mark Abbott, general manager of nutrition services at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens, showed that hospital food doesn't have to equal icky food at the Battle of the Hospital Chefs, a national, "Iron Chef" style cooking competition held Tuesday in Chicago.
"Their idea in doing it is that hospital food isn't meatloaf and Jell-O, like it used to be," said Mark Ralston, spokesman for the hospital.
"We're putting a lot more emphasis on culinary skills," said Nevel Andrews, food and nutrition service director for Athens Regional Medical Center. "I've seen trends toward more specialized service, which probably gives the patient a higher degree of satisfaction."
Judges picked Abbott as one of three finalists in the competition for his recipe for grilled, honey-lime grouper and shrimp with watermelon salsa, Mediterranean green bean mlange with caramelized balsamic onions, garden risotto Italia and cranberry summer-fresh mint tea.
"I've always had a knack for putting flavors together in my head," Abbott said.
The judges looked for recipes that were heart healthy, great tasting and easily whipped together in a hospital kitchen for less than $4.95 a plate.
"It's a big deal," Ralston said of Abbott being named a finalist. "It's getting bigger and bigger."
The Wall Street Journal featured Abbott in a recent story about hospital food. A national morning television program has indicated they'll likely invite the winner of the contest on the show.
While the big-time publicity is nice, Abbott has long taken satisfaction in the knowledge that a recipe he created might bring a smile to a patient suffering through a painful recovery.
"It's a very important role," he said, of his position with the hospital.
Patients likely can't gauge the quality of their, say, upper gastrointestinal endoscopy if they've never experienced one before. So, said Abbott, patients tend to judge their hospital stays with more familiar things like cleanliness, friendliness of staff and, in particular, the food.
"It's one of the few pleasures in a hospital stay," said Abbott.
St. Mary's offers a room-service system allowing patients to call in an order between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and have their food delivered in about 45 minutes.
That means St. Mary's patients can order pizza for breakfast if they want.
Such individual attention is no small task considering dining services serve 1,200 meals a day, according to Abbott.
At Athens Regional Medical Center, meals are served during prescribed hours.
Andrews goes to the grocery store about four times a week to pick up a special request for a patient. He bought and cooked a lobster for one elderly woman. He's also served patients candlelight dinners.
"If that's what they ask for," he said. "We don't advertise it."
Both hospitals let patients pick selections from a menu, tailored to their specific health needs. Both offer plenty of healthy options.
"We're in the healthcare business, so it's important to have healthy food," Ralston said.
If a patient wants to reminisce about the old days of hospital food, though, St. Mary's still offers meatloaf and Jell-O.
"You can get green Jell-O if you want," Abbott said. "Green Jell-O is still available, but it's not a have-to."
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