Elizabeth Vanner padded down the hospital hall in a blue robe, ankle socks and pink fluffy slippers. She picked up the telephone at the nurse's station and dialed the kitchen. "Hello," she said. "What's the soup du jour?"
Vanner had a choice of five soups and more than two dozen entrees-not including breakfast food-for dinner at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Elizabeth, N.J., the first hospital in the state to allow patients to choose what they want to eat when they want to eat it.
"I feel like I'm in a hotel or something," Vanner said after ordering roast beef, french fries and cream of mushroom soup.
Hospitals nationwide have been revamping their food service, some offering hotel-style room service like St. Elizabeth and others hiring gourmet chefs.
"You want the patient to feel like they've been to a fine hotel when they come to your hospital," said Kevin Ronayne, president-elect of the American Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators.
Recent research by the New Jersey Hospital Association found food was one of the most memorable parts of a patient's stay. "It's not so much how much better they felt or how successful the surgery was," said Ron Czajkowski, association spokesman. "It's how they were treated, how good the food was."
At 266-bed St. Elizabeth, which began its program earlier this year, patients order from a four-page menu with entrees like vegetable lasagna, chicken Caesar salad and baked fish with crumb topping.
The meals are promised in 45 minutes. The kitchen closes at 7 p.m., but patients can order the same meals from the hospital coffee shop until 2 a.m.
When the food arrives, patient Michael Corbett said, it tastes fresher. "It's better than some places I've eaten at on the outside," said Corbett, a construction worker in the hospital with a foot infection.
Vanner also liked the vast selection-so much that she ordered about 10 items from the dinner menu, including peaches, rice pudding, salad and coffee. "You have a big choice," she said. "The other way, it was every day the same thing."
The food is fresher, hospital dietitian Poonam Batra said, because it's made to order, rather than in bulk a day ahead of time. "Now you don't have a pan of steamed chicken sitting in an oven for two hours," she said. And patients, she said, are likely to eat more food and recover faster when they get exactly what they want.
In New Jersey, 615-bed Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston just started a similar room service program.
And last summer, 435-bed Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch had a visiting chef series, where Swiss-trained chefs offered entrees like mahi-mahi, shrimp and tortellini Alfredo.
Shorter patient stays are the main reason for the room service option, Ronayne said. Hospitals have less time to perform tests and other procedures and often schedule them during traditional mealtimes. "(Patients aren't) always ready to eat when we're ready to feed them," he said. "Why not feed them when they're ready?"