By Megan Salazar – VRG Dietetic Intern
Whether you are on the way to the hospital for a planned surgery or in an ambulance for an unexpected hospital visit, the last thing that may be on your mind is what you are going to eat while in the hospital. As a vegetarian or vegan, it can be tricky to manage your diet and preferences if you are not aware of the options. There are a variety of things to consider and ways to be prepared if you are planning a hospital stay or just want to be familiar with your options for a future event.
Anytime you are going to the hospital for a scheduled procedure or an emergency, it is easy to be anxious of the unknown. If you are able, you can prepare for your stay in the following ways:
- Know the area hospitals and what they offer for vegetarian & vegan diets:
- Call your local hospital and request to speak with the dietary or food service department. Ask them if they have a special menu or items offered for a vegetarian diet. If you have certain brands that you prefer, ask if they have those accessible or if they would be able to get them for you when you might have to stay in the hospital.
- If they are unable to tell you what they have available, ask to speak with a dietitian.
- Have a small amount of food ready for snacks or light meals:
- Items like nuts, dried fruit, snack bars, canned soups, and crackers will be handy if you get hungry in between meals at the hospital. If you miss your hot meal due to more rest, having items on hand that provide a little more calories can help you feel satisfied. However, items may need to be approved by the dietitian if you are on a therapeutic diet or cannot eat before surgery.
- Have instructions written out in case of an emergency: and
- Carry a card of your pertinent medical information, allergies and food preferences.
- Know the restaurants around the hospital that serve vegetarian or vegan meals to go.
- Check out the VRG sites list of restaurants by area at http://www.vrg.org/restaurant/index.php
When checking into the hospital, the screening form that you fill out at admission will usually have a section in which to indicate dietary preferences or concerns. The doctor will be able to note your special dietary needs in the diet order, but if the doctor does not make this indication, ask the nurses to contact the dietitian to make sure your needs are met. The diet order lets the kitchen and food services staff know what is acceptable for you to eat.
Besides the doctor and dietitian, the nurses and any other staff that works with you during your stay will be able to advocate for you. If mistakes are made or special requests are necessary, the staff will be able to contact the kitchen on your behalf. If unacceptable foods are received, voice concerns immediately as they can be corrected by the food services staff. If they are not corrected by the food services staff, the nurse can contact the dietitian to reconcile any problems.
Every hospital differs in how they deliver food to their patients. Some hospitals have a room service option that allows you to be in contact with a dietetic technician to guide you through the menu. The diet tech will be able to let you know what other foods they have that may not be on the menu. Other hospitals may bring you a standard tray of food based on your diet order. Items can be added to this tray on your request as well.
Visits to the hospital cannot always be predicted and if you are hospitalized while traveling, your ability to be prepared ahead of time may be limited. Being unprepared does not mean that a hospital stay will be a disaster. Most hospitals carry a variety of foods that can be used to make a delicious vegetarian or vegan meal at a moment’s notice. Items like rice and beans, along with vegetables, fruits and nuts can be combined to satisfy your dietary needs. Don’t be afraid to request items that are not on the menu, but be aware that if you are on a therapeutic diet, any special items will need the dietitian’s approval.
Friends and family members can also help the patient’s experience by knowing what foods they can bring in to the patient from a grocery store or restaurant. The patient may also be able to suggest preferred restaurants. The Vegetarian Resource Group has a list online of restaurants with vegetarian and vegan options by area. Many other restaurants also have vegetarian and vegan options available; check menus on their websites for options ahead of time. Family members and friends who would like to bring in food should discuss available options with the dietitian as well to be sure the foods that are brought in are acceptable for the patient’s prescribed diet.
If you are unable to eat by mouth and have to be fed by a tube to your stomach, you will need to be given a special formula designed to be fed through the tube. You can be comfortable knowing that most formulas are vegetarian. Many formulas are based on casein (a protein from cow’s milk). Some soy-based formulas contain ingredients that are not derived from animals with the exception of vitamin D, which is derived from sheep’s wool. If you are uncomfortable with this, be sure to discuss alternative options with the doctor and dietitian. Treatments like this are usually temporary and can help you transition back to a normal diet.
Whether you are prepared before surgery or not ready due to an emergency, your worries about food can be eased by speaking with the doctor and dietitian candidly about any dietary concerns. The burden of preparing for this part of a hospital stay should be lightened as most hospitals will work with your needs and will usually go the extra mile to make sure you are fed the proper foods required, whether it is a preference or an allergy. Your health and comfort is usually the priority of all hospital staff, especially when it comes to nutrition.
The contents of this article and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.