Nutrition-wise blog

Play it safe when taking food to a loved one in the hospital

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. March 28, 2012

As much as hospitals try, the food they serve may not meet expectations — especially when people don't feel well. As a result, you may be tempted to bring a meal or special treat to a loved one in the hospital to show your concern and to help make the person feel better.

In your concern, you might not ask if this is safe. It's important to know that in some circumstances this act of kindness could have unintended and even deadly consequences.

Here are some guidelines that my department has put in place to help people navigate this thorny issue:

  • Before you bring food in, check with the nurse, doctor or dietitian. Your loved one may be at risk for infection or may need to follow a very strict diet. In some situations, even normal bacteria in foods (such as uncooked items like fruits or salads) or excess nutrients (such as those containing vitamin K, or unknown substances like gluten or allergens) can be dangerous.
  • If you get the OK to bring food in, make sure you prepare food safely. The Department of Agriculture has excellent information on their website about food safety for people who are vulnerable to infection. Throughout the steps of food preparation, it's important to follow the mantra:

    - Clean. Wash your hands, utensils and cutting boards before and after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.

    - Separate. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood away from foods that won't be cooked.

    - Cook. Use a food thermometer — you can't tell food is cooked safely by how it looks.

    - Chill. Refrigerate foods within 2 hours and keep the fridge at 40 F or below.

  • Bring only enough food that can be eaten at one time. Consider single-serve items, such as individual yogurts, packages of crackers and peanut butter, and wrapped cookies. That way there are no leftovers to worry about.
  • Don't store perishable foods in the room. In addition to being unsafe, they can be unappetizing.
  • Label all food items. Put the name of your loved one on the food container and the date that the food was prepared. You don't want your kind intention causing problems for another patient.

These are basic guidelines. The hospital may have ones that are more specific. I hope you find them helpful.

- Jennifer

March 28, 2012