In part one of this series about hospital food, I discussed the options — or should that be the non-options? — that a hospital visitor has for healthy food. It’s sad that much of what is served in hospital vending machines, gift shops and even cafeterias is food that is unhealthy for us.

I spent more than five weeks at a local hospital last fall, not as a patient but as the daughter of a patient. From the minute I arrived in the ER with my mom as she was having a heart attack, eating healthy became a problem for my family and me. For me, it was a challenge to find healthy food in the hospital while I was there several hours each day. For my family, it was a challenge to get healthy dinners on the table when I was gone most of the day and often too tired to cook when I got home.

After about two weeks of trying to do it all, I finally cried uncle and accepted the kindness of people who had offered to bring my family dinners. I’m very thankful to my friends and my church care ministry for providing meals.

If you are in the position to help a family like mine, I have a suggestion. Forget the baked ziti. Don’t get me wrong. Baked ziti is yummy. We were thrilled with the first one we got and with the second one. But by the time we got the fifth one in a two-week period….

I understand why pasta casseroles are frequently given in situations like these. They are family friendly and just need to be popped in the oven and the meal is taken care of. It’s almost a safe bet, however, if you’re providing a meal for a family that has accepted several meals recently, they’ve already had one or two. They could use a little variety.

A few ideas

  • All the fixins for tacos: Kids love tacos. Cook up ground beef with taco seasoning or chicken strips. Cut up all the tomatoes, lettuce and onions. Shred the cheese. Put everything in individual containers. Provide hard or soft taco shells, a small container of sour cream, and perhaps a can of refried beans. All the family will have to do is reheat the meat and heat the taco shells (and maybe the beans). Easy.
  • French dip sandwiches: This great slow cooker French dip recipe couldn’t be easier. I add a ¼ cup of low-sodium soy sauce to the recipe. Provide the family with a container of the sliced beef in the au jus. Add rolls (Portuguese rolls are great) and perhaps some sliced provolone or Swiss cheese. Add a salad or even cut up raw veggies as a side. Another plus to this is the recipe makes so much you’ll have enough to give and enough to keep for yourself.
  • Vegetarian chili: If the family you’re providing for is vegetarian, try a chili recipe. Whip up a batch of mashed potatoes as a side. These can quickly be reheated for a comforting meal.
  • Quiche: This would be a good meal for a single person or a small family. It could be a meat-free zucchini quiche or a traditional Quiche Lorraine full of ham. A green salad or a fresh fruit salad would round this out making it a light, healthy meal.
  • A pot of soup: Chicken Noodle or Minestrone are healthy, comforting soups. The vegetables are already in the soup. Add crusty bread and you've got a meal.
This, of course, is not a comprehensive list. The trick is to provide a family with everything they need to create a meal, have all of the prep work done, and let them put things together and reheat.


A few thoughts

  • Call ahead and ask how much the family has leftover in the refrigerator from other meals. Maybe they just need a salad and fresh bread to go with a leftover casserole. Ask if they’d like you to provide that. If you feel like that’s cheating, bake them a plate of homemade cookies to deliver with it.
  • If you can, provide your food in reused deli containers, butter tubs, etc. That way the family won’t have to worry about getting your containers back to you.
  • Another question to ask is how much they’d like. We were given at least two meals worth of food with almost every drop off. It was thoughtful, but with everyone being so thoughtful, our refrigerator and freezer couldn’t handle it all. Fortunately, I passed a lot of the leftovers to my single brother who took the evening shifts at the hospital with my mom so he had something to eat when he got home. Still, some of it went to waste.
  • Feel free to add a small dessert, but only enough for one serving per person.
  • If there are young children in the family, and you don’t know for sure if they will like something like fish or something loaded with mushrooms, try to stay away from ingredients that kids are generally squeamish about. This isn’t the time to broaden a child’s culinary horizons. It’s a time to provide a meal that a family can sit down and enjoy without too much hassle. Stick capers in something, and you’re asking for a “do I haaaaave to eat thiiiiiis?”
I’ve got some ideas about providing those who are going to spend a lot of time at the hospital caring for a loved one with healthy snacks. Come back tomorrow for those.

Do you have any ideas for providing meals to families in situations like this? 

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Healthy eating for hospital visitors, part 2
Meal ideas to help out those who are helping a loved one in the hospital.