You can sum up the new approach to food at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in two words: Room service.

Or here’s a longer version: “I get to eat what I want when I want.”

That’s the message printed on a colorful banner decorated by a 7-year-old patient, eager for dining-on-demand food service to take effect.

The new approach, which launched today, Aug. 2, does away with set meal times, where every patient gets a tray delivered at the same time. And patients don’t have to choose their food a day in advance.

Instead, they order from a menu, anytime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Meals are prepared fresh and delivered quickly in smaller, sleeker delivery carts.

The system lets patients order what they want―within doctor’s guidelines―and avoid items that might make their stomach churn.

That will make a big difference in quality of life for kids in the hospital, particularly those recovering from surgery or coping with chemotherapy, said Annika Ohman.

When you have food that sounds good and tastes good, it boosts the morale in the room.

Jeremy Bergman
Child Life specialist

An 18-year-old from Hudsonville, Michigan, Annika was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. She finished treatment in January, but continues to serve on the Teen Council at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The council gave suggestions and feedback as staff revamped the food service.

The menu now includes tilapia, vegetable lasagna, quesadillas and homestyle macaroni and cheese.

“I think it’s a lot better,” she said. “I love the new items they have on the menu. And I really like how it looks now.”

To put room service in place required changes in the kitchen, additional staff and training. But the staff embraced the changes, said Jessica Stanley, BS, the manager of nutrition services at Spectrum Health Medical Center. They recognize the important role food plays in a patient’s life.

“When you come to the hospital, pretty much everything is dictated to you. Your whole life changes,” she said. “Food is one of the things that is familiar to you from normal life outside the hospital. So to have control over it is a big factor for patients.”

Normal life rarely involves having food delivered on a pink-and-gray institutional tray topped with a big rectangular cover.

The teens especially supported the decision to ditch the bulky trays, Annika said. When they talked about hospital food, they frequently complained about the way smells “wafted” from the tray when the cover was lifted.

“If you are feeling sick, you don’t want a tray full of smelly food coming into your room,” she said.

In the new system, a small cover fits over each plate.

Another big recommendation from the Teen Council: more fresh vegetables.

Naomi Wilke agreed. A 7-year-old girl from Torch Lake, Naomi is in the hospital fighting leukemia. Her mother, Donna Norton, said she works to find foods her daughter will eat, to help her keep her weight up.

And Naomi loves vegetables―Brussels sprouts, carrots and salad.

Before the new service launched, she and Annika checked out a preview of a sample meal that included pecan-crusted tilapia, broccoli, salad and a yogurt parfait. They gave their approval.

Naomi created a banner and covered it with pictures of food. She drew a grilled cheese sandwich, watermelon and a bowl of tomato soup.

She and Annika talked about their favorite foods. Both liked vanilla ice cream, pizza, chicken nuggets and brownies.

“Is there anything you don’t like?” Annika asked.

“Melon,” Naomi said. “The only kind of melon I like is watermelon.”

It takes planning to meet the wide range of individual tastes and medical needs of patients. Room service is now in place at all Spectrum Health’s Grand Rapids-area hospitals. About 1,400 patient meals are served daily at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals and the Meijer Heart Center.

Nutrition services also serves 4,900 meals in the hospital restaurants.

A place mat and a sticker

Food service for the youngest patients includes a few special touches. They get a place mat that has puzzles and mazes. Delivery staff brings a sticker for the child and any siblings along with the food.

They also have a couple of extra menu items―chicken nuggets and French toast sticks.

The members of the Teen Council enjoyed having a chance to make hospital meals more kid-friendly, said the Child Life specialists who work with the teens. They recognized that an appetizing meal can make life as an inpatient a little more palatable.

“When you have food that sounds good and tastes good, it boosts the morale in the room,” said Jeremy Bergman, administrative support coordinator for Child Life.