Delicious Plant-Based Eating for Patients

Published on : 12/12/22
  • When staff offered plant-based lunches to patients at New York City Health + Hospitals, everyone wondered if patients would accept the meals or ask for meat instead. But dishes like mushroom garden Bolognese and kabocha squash over rice proved popular during the eight-week program, designed to measure patient acceptance and satisfaction. 

    Ninety percent of patients did not reject their plant-based meal and 80% reported enjoying it. The program was so successful, plant-based dishes are now primary lunch and dinner options for inpatients at all of the system’s 11 public acute care hospitals.  

    Hospitalized patients will enjoy 14 tasty new “chef’s choice” meals, inspired by the flavors of Latin America, Asia and other places representing the system’s diverse patient population. 

    Sodexo serves 3 million meals per year to patients at NYC Health + Hospitals; in 2023, we expect 850,000 of those meals will be plant-based. We also plan to expand plant-based offerings to the hospital system’s post-acute care facilities. 

    “It’s really showing patients the health benefits without having the center of the plate be meat,” says Samantha Morgenstern, a registered dietitian and Sodexo Director of Nutrition for NYC Health + Hospitals. 

    The plant-based program is built on the success of a 2019 campaign: Meatless Mondays, featuring weekly plant-based meals. The food and nutrition team collaborated with the cardiology and lifestyle medicine teams to recommend plant-based diets when appropriate. 

    Then came 2020, bringing COVID-19 and operational challenges. New programs went on hold until fall 2021, when the plant-based lunch program was planned, in alignment with New York City wellness and sustainability efforts. The program launched in March of 2022.


    Eligible patients received two top plant-based “chef recommendations.” (Some could not participate, due to dietary requirements.) If patients made no choice, they received the top plant-based “default” meal. Staff collected data on orders and solicited feedback. Dietitians rolled the program out to the patients, staff and community, sharing the science and positive environmental impact behind the meals. 

    With unfamiliar foods, such as edamame falafel, patients received how-to guides. They also received educational materials to take home. Some sites were more accepting of plant-based foods, based on the patient populations’ traditional food cultures. 

    Other lessons from the program? Include milk to ensure adequate vitamin D intake. Plant-based meals can provide adequate protein, by serving complementary higher-protein grains and legumes. The program’s “uptake number” – the increase in patients who accepted or selected plant-based – was also strong.

    Morgenstern says:

    About 55% more patients ate plant-based meals during the program, as opposed to those who normally would.

    This increase falls at the high range for adoptions of any healthy new foods. Program results were highlighted in a documentary created by the non-profit Better Food Foundation, featuring Morgenstern, Chef Philip Demaiolo and others. 

    It’s been a great partnership, Morgenstern says. It really has brought to life the essential role dietitians play in promoting nutrition and its overall impact on the health and well-being of our patients.

    Learn more on how we’re promoting healthy eating and reducing carbon emissions in our A Better Tomorrow 2022 Sustainability & Corporate Social Responsibility Report.