Mercy Health Network whips up frozen entrées for patients

December 1, 2018


To help build healthier communities in Iowa and Nebraska, Mercy Health Network decided to chill out. The health system, run under a joint operating agreement between Trinity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives, has created a line of frozen meals called Healthy Variety. Low in sodium and saturated fat but high in flavor, the meals were originally intended for patients with heart disease. They have become favorites with the staff as well.

Mercy Health meal
Several Mercy Health Network facilities now sell a Mercy-branded line of heart healthy frozen meals. Prepared in hospital kitchens, the meals-to-go are hit with patients and staff.

Mercy Health Network's foray into frozen foods started with a task force at the organization's Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque looking for ways to reduce readmission rates for patients with congestive heart failure. The task force focused on finding healthy food options that were easy to prepare at home. They discovered almost none.

"Learning to read labels in the store can be confusing for a person recently diagnosed with heart failure," said Stephanie Small, clinical nutrition coordinator at Mercy Medical Center Sioux City, another of Mercy Health Network's hospitals where the meals are now available. "There are so many items to choose from in the frozen food section, but some are supersized and most have so much sodium and saturated fat. It can be overwhelming."

Over nine months, the Mercy team at the Dubuque hospital developed recipes that were heart healthy, sized appropriately, low in sodium and saturated fat — and delicious. The staff tested and fine-tuned recipes before piloting the meals with patients in Dubuque.

Mercy Health Network had chefs, culinary staff, clinical dietitians and marketing staff involved in the development, said Tracey Badar, director of nutritional service for Mercy Health Network Sioux City.

During product development, the nutrition staff at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque realized that the meals also could be a healthy option for patients who are overweight, or have diabetes or high blood pressure. The meals initially were available through the cafeteria in Dubuque, where they were produced and packaged. They proved popular quickly and a few months later became available at the Mercy Family Pharmacy in Dubuque.

Expansion to other facilities
The nutritional service staff then shared the recipes and packaging with their colleagues in Mercy Health Network's Clinton and Sioux City facilities, which have been preparing, packing and selling the meals in their own cafeterias since June.

The meals come in 12 varieties, including French toast for breakfast, and range from 220 to 420 calories. Badar said roast beef seemed to be the most popular, though he prefers the salmon with bruschetta. Small is partial to the citrus peppercorn tilapia. Each costs between $4.75 and $5.50.

"We wanted to price it competitively, so it would be affordable," Small said. "This is less expensive than going out to eat and close to what you pay at the grocery store for other frozen meals. And we've taken the guesswork out of it. It doesn't matter which you choose. You know you're getting a healthy meal with an appropriate size and proper nutrition. And they taste great."

Badar estimated purchases by hospital staff account for 20 percent of the sales. Some people buy the meals in the cafeteria to warm up on a break. Others want something to grab and go when their shift ends. A few buy them for family members with heart failure or diabetes.

Badar said that the meals have proven so popular that Mercy is considering expanding the service to include more breakfast options, online ordering and a home delivery program.

"We make a small margin on the meals, but from a strategic point of view, they were designed to better service and provide care to those we serve in our community, rather than being profitable," he said. "We identified a need to help keep a good portion of our community healthy, and these meals were developed based on that need."

Mercy Cedar Rapids' take-home meals let staff 'relish' family dinner times

After a long shift, many staff at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just want to relax and enjoy some quality time with loved ones. Most don't want to stop at the grocery store on the way home to buy something to cook for dinner.

The food services staff at the medical center, which is not affiliated with Mercy Health Network, came to the rescue of weary workers with Relish, a line of take-home meals available through the center's newly renovated cafeteria.

Mercy Cedar Rapids
At Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids food service employees prepare healthy take-home meals for purchase by staff. The heat-and-eat meals are sold in the hospital's cafeteria.

"I heard requests from some of our nurses who were looking for options to grab and go so they didn't have to go to the store after working a 12-hour shift, something convenient and nutritious that would taste good," said Jamie Hultquist, retail manager at Mercy. Hultquist approached the hospital's clinical dietitians for suggestions. The team started with recipes available in the cafeteria then developed new ones, using locally sourced produce.

They portioned their entrées large enough for two, with sides packaged and sold separately. Entrées are $7; sides are $3.50. All items are prepared and packaged in the medical center's kitchen, which offers six entrées per month on a rotating basis, one of which is a vegetarian option. Most are packed in foil containers; grilled entrées are packed in resealable plastic bags. All include cooking instructions, nutrition information and suggestions for add-ons.

"We chose the name because we wanted our staff to relish their meal time, to make it a pleasure, rather than a chore," said Pam Oldham, Mercy's director of Food & Nutrition Services, who said the program has sold about 4,500 entrées in the last year.

A recent remodel and expansion of the cafeteria has allowed Mercy to expand its grab-and-go options to include gallons of milk, juice and local produce. The staff recently offered take-and-bake pizzas for the first time to great acclaim and is considering offering family-sized entrées to serve four.

Though the service originally was designed for employees, Oldham said, "visitors said they would take some home for mom when she's released from the hospital. We also hear from volunteers that they've tried them and like them, too."




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