Hospitals try to give patients a taste of home on holidays

It's never a good time to be sick or injured, but can you imagine being in the hospital on the fourth Thursday in November?

That's where thousands from the region and beyond -- and their families -- will be spending Thanksgiving Day, missing out on the big meal that for so many is synonymous with the national holiday.

Or do they?

Pittsburgh's UPMC facilities are among the hundreds of hospitals across the country that offer special menus on holidays for patients and their visitors. On Thanksgiving, that means roast turkey breast with all the traditional trimmings, along with that must-have slice of velvety pumpkin pie spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

"Really, I don't think we could ignore it," says Simone Frerk, executive director of food services for UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

Granted, it might not include exactly what people would pile on their plates at Grandma's. Most definitely it's not in the mammoth portions so many of us allow ourselves this one day a year. And sadly, there's none of those yummy leftovers that get tucked into late-night sandwiches or slipped into soup, casseroles or potpies the next day.

But it ain't bad, either.

Hospital food has come a long way in recent years, with more choices and improved quality that often includes locally sourced ingredients and back-to-basic scratch cooking. Thanks to UPMC's patient-controlled "liberalized" diet program, patients can choose foods from a menu similar to the comfort foods they eat at home, when they want it, unless their doctor says otherwise. (Upon checking into the hospital, everyone gets evaluated and prescribed a diet.)

That said, patients have so many different diets and dietary needs it's impossible for hospital kitchens to cook "the way you do at home," says Ms. Frerk, with fewer worries about calories, fat and sodium content.

"We have to modify," she says.

They're also cooking for a crowd -- some 1,500 patients on average every day at UPMC Presby, Montefiore, Western Psychiatric and Shadyside.

So how is Thanksgiving Day dinner prepared?

White meat contains less fat and fewer calories than dark meat, so instead of roasting entire turkeys, Executive Chef for Patient Services John Howey and his staff cook just the breasts, with fresh herbs sprinkled on top and inside the cavity for flavor. In lieu of butter and heavy or sour cream (and in some home kitchens all three), red-skin potatoes get mashed with a little olive oil, which provides that nice round mouth feel of fat, but none of the guilt.

The obligatory green beans and bread stuffing have similarly simply preparations -- steamed in the case of the former, and baked in the latter.

"We just add a little margarine and chicken stock," says Chef Howey, who trained at Pennsylvania Culinary and has been in the job overseeing patients' meals for six years.

As for the homemade pumpkin pie that rounds out the meal, it's pretty much the same "special occasion" recipe as most people make at home.

"The only thing people get to choose when they're in the hospital is what they eat," says Chef Howey. "So we want to provide things that taste good."

Chef John Howey's Pumpkin Pie

PG tested

This pie is perfectly balanced: not too sweet, and not too spicy. Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

  • 2 cups canned pumpkin
  • 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 9-inch baked pie crust (I used Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crust)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Whisk pumpkin, condensed milk, eggs, molasses, spices and salt in medium bowl until smooth. Pour into crust.

Bake pie for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, and bake an additional 35 to 40 minutes or until knife inserted 1-inch from crust comes out clean. Cool. Garnish as desired.

Makes 8 servings.

-- John Howey, Executive Chef at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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