Healthy Living in the North

Feeding patients: it’s all about teamwork

When I was younger, certain foods seemed “yucky” to me – brussel sprouts, for example– even though I’d never tried them. I couldn’t explain why, but there was no way I was going to give up prime plate real estate for even a single brussel sprout. Plus, my friends were very vocal about their own dislikes so that didn’t entice me any further.  

Now that I work in the field of food, I notice this attitude a lot when it comes to hospital food; old stereotypes about hospital food are still very commonly referred to and people are still vocal about it. However, what we often don’t consider is how what we say might influence what, or how much, patients eat. Food plays a key part in recovery, and hospital food often takes the blame as the reason for patients not getting enough to eat. But where malnutrition is concerned,there’s a lot at play and how we talk about food may be a stepping stone to lessening its impact.

What is ‘malnutrition’? 


Malnutrition is broadly defined as too little or too many nutrients being eaten. In the hospital setting, we are most concerned with too little being eaten, regardless of weight.

Did You Know?

Canada has a Malnutrition Task Force! Their research from Canadian hospitals shows:

  • Almost half (45%) of patients admitted to hospitals are malnourished when they arrive.
  • Patients who are malnourished have longer hospital stays.
  • Patients who are malnourished are more likely to be re-admitted within 30 days of being discharged.

The Canadian Malnutrition Task Force hosts an annual Canadian Malnutrition Week in September, with the goal of raising awareness of hospital malnutrition and supporting strategies to overcome it. This year, the theme was ‘What’s on the Menu?’, where perceptions of hospital food were put in the spotlight.

Malnutrition Week at UHNBC 


On  September 25, 2018, dietitians from Northern Health’s Regional Diet Office and University Hospital of Northern British Columbia visited patient units as well as the cafeteria to offer a taste-test of the lunch meal being served to patients. Our roving carts were stocked with samples of chicken souvlaki, tzatziki, and pita bread. We had some great conversation with staff and visitors, and collected feedback from taste-testers through a brief survey.


Challenging hospital food stereotypes


Like this year’s theme for Malnutrition Week, our goal was to draw attention to the importance of food and nutrition in the health and recovery of patients. We wanted to challenge staff and visitors to consider their roles in encouraging and supporting patients to eat, by tackling the stereotypical perceptions of hospital food within hospital culture.

What did we find out?

Most people we talked to were surprised to find out that Northern Health has an extensive Food Services department that:

  • Is made up of kitchen managers, superviors, cooks, food serviceworkers, and dietitians from across all of NH.
  • Meets every two weeks to discuss menu changes, review patient and staff feedback, evaluate meals/food items, and develop new from-scratch recipes.

From our surveys…

  • Total surveys: 77
    • Overall improved perceptions pre and post taste-test: 73%
    • Overall worsened perceptions pre and post taste-test: 0%
    • Overall no change to perceptions or question(s) not responded to: 27%

Now What?


Let’s re-think how we talk about hospital food! The language we use in conversation is a subtle yet powerful way we influence what or how much someone eats. Take a moment to reflect: how likely are you to eat a meal or food item if those around you have made negative comments about it? Particularly in the hospital,these types of comments can have significant outcomes and we likely don’t realize it.

Although we’ve wrapped up Malnutrition Week for this year, improving patients’ food intake is a year-round project that takes teamwork. Whether it’s a family member, a friend, or in your everyday work, what are some ways you can support patients at mealtimes?

Wondering what contributes to pre-admission malnutrition? Population health dietitian Laurel dives into one piece of the puzzle – food security – in an 3-part blog series. Check it out!

Allie Stephen

About Allie Stephen

Allie works with Northern Health as a dietitian at the Regional Diet Office in Prince George. She grew up in Ottawa and completed her dietetic internship with Northern Health through the UBC Dietetics program. Allie loves all that BC has to offer and her experiences in the North have been no exception! In her spare time, she enjoys sharing food with friends and family, reading, dancing, canoeing, and exploring beautiful BC.

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A study in self-care: what’s on the menu?

Imagine your “happy place.” Where are you? What is it about this place that allows you to let go of stress? Now, come back to this reality. What can you do to gain that same feeling of relief?

As a university student, I’ve had ups and downs with stress. The first few years of my degree, I found I was feeling more overwhelmed that I’d ever felt before; I was having difficulty balancing school with life. When I did let myself break away from the books – to skate, hike, share dinner with friends, watch a movie, etc.,  I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. I found that I would return to my assignments feeling energized and ready to go. All this is to say: I wasn’t very good at self-care.

Self-care is time we take to intentionally look after the many aspects of our health: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. It’s time to reflect and refresh, and it looks different for everyone. Now, in the final months of my dietetic internship with Northern Health and getting set to launch into the “real world,” I’ve learned what self-care means to me: connecting with food!

three girls eating outside at a picnic table together.

For me, self-care means connecting with food!

I’ve found I feel the most refreshed when I take the time to make and eat a meal or snack I’m excited about. I don’t consider myself a gourmet cook by any means, but I do feel a sense of accomplishment when I create something from scratch. I choose the dish, I get the ingredients together, I decide which steps to follow and which to skip… it’s a creative outlet that gives my food added value. A successful stint in the kitchen also gives me the chance to share something I’m proud of with friends and family. Heck, even if it wasn’t successful, past triumphs give me the confidence to at least share a laugh!

Socializing around food is something I’ve come to value quite a bit. There are many great benefits to eating together, but what I like most is the opportunity to enjoy the company of others. Gathering around food allows us to come together, catch up, and share stories; it can be a means of self-care in itself. The best part is, it doesn’t need to be complicated! There are lots of ways to socialize around food:

  • Host a potluck
  • Make snacks for the hiking trail
  • Pack a picnic basket for the beach or park
  • Make a snack to share in a blanket fort
  • Share baking with coworkers or your community group
  • Join a local community kitchen or cooking club
  • Berry pick in your favourite berry patch
  • Explore a local farmers’ market
  • Volunteer to cook or serve food at a community dinner

…the possibilities are endless!

March is Nutrition Month, and Northern Health dietitians are encouraging you to share how you gather around food. What food-related activities will give you a break and let you breathe that sigh of relief?

Allie Stephen

About Allie Stephen

Allie works with Northern Health as a dietitian at the Regional Diet Office in Prince George. She grew up in Ottawa and completed her dietetic internship with Northern Health through the UBC Dietetics program. Allie loves all that BC has to offer and her experiences in the North have been no exception! In her spare time, she enjoys sharing food with friends and family, reading, dancing, canoeing, and exploring beautiful BC.

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