Healing, One Meal at a Time

Unity Center’s Food and Nutrition team customizes the right meals for each patient, ensuring they have the nourishment they need for their road to wellness.

March 25, 2022

To heal the mind and body, a consistent diet of healthy and nutritious food must be part of the process. At Unity Center for Behavioral Health, the Food and Nutrition team knows that food is medicine. That’s why the team works daily to ensure that the food there is the best it can be.

From left to right: Oksana Holovko, John Lister, Chelsea O’Bryan and Evan Milstein work in Unity Center for Behavioral Health’s kitchen, where they prepare more than 800 meals a day for patients, staff and visitors.

Unity Center’s kitchen produces on average an astounding 400 patient meals a day, as well as 400 more for staff and visitors. The team feels strongly that choice is a critical part of the healing process, and when patients can choose what’s best for them, it provides them with independence and dignity — two bedrocks of patient care at Unity Center.

When Unity Center opened five years ago, patients were provided with a stocked kitchen, where food was available to them. Over time, that situation evolved. What started out as one menu of options has now grown into seven different specialty menus that meet a wide variety of patients’ dietary needs, such as gluten-free or vegan. Dietitians meet with patients to develop the best meal plan for them and closely align the nutrition with their physical and mental health care needs each day.

“All Legacy Health nutrition services use special software that integrates with patients’ medical records, allowing us to manage nutrition intake and analysis,” said Colleen Peters, director of food and nutrition at Unity Center. “Patients may change their mind or their habits and preferences, and so it’s important to follow these preferences, so that their road to healing is a successful one.”

Unity Center cook, Estrah Lim, prepares nutritious food for patients, staff, and visitors in the hospital’s kitchen.

Food from Scratch, From the Heart

Homemade meals allow for greater control over what goes into the food, which means it’s more nutritious. The Food and Nutrition team knows that in order to help patients along their healing journey, their food must also heal.

“We prioritize making as much as we can in-house versus using pre-made foods. All our soups are made from scratch, as is about 75% of all menu selections,” explained Peters. “We have multiple purveyors that supply us with our ingredients, and with our talented staff, we are able to turn that into delicious meals for the patients. One study shows that by simply increasing omega 3 fatty acids, for example, depression symptoms can be lessened.”

In addition to nutritious food, safety is always a priority, which means meals are served with utensils that keep patients and others safe.

What’s on the Menu?

Here’s a snapshot of the types of meals patients and visitors receive at Unity Center.

Breakfast: Pancakes served with turkey sausage or a roasted vegetable frittata

Lunch: Stuffed pasta shells with broccoli or Thai salad with peanut dressing

Dinner: BBQ pulled pork sandwich with cabbage slaw and roasted sweet potatoes or vegetarian chili with cornbread and chuckwagon vegetables

“We never use glassware or other breakable materials. Meals are delivered to units and distributed by the units’ staff, rather than dietary hosts. This ensures safety for every patient,” Peters explained. “We have a unique patient population at Unity Center, and because of that, we take every precaution to ensure their safety.”

Reinforcing Healthy Habits

It’s critical that patients be able to continue eating nutritious meals once they leave Unity Center. To reinforce these healthy habits, Unity Center has provided classes to patients focusing on a range of topics, from low-budget meals and the importance of fiber, to having good breakfast habits and low-sodium eating. The classes were paused for safety during the pandemic but will resume in the future. Many of them are designed to use foods that they will have access to once they leave, helping them to prepare healthy meals.

“Our classes are essential in developing life skills for patients,” said Unity Center dietitian, Evan Milstein, who leads the effort. “It is our goal to see our patients continue on a path of wellness once they leave our care.”

Unity Center believes in a holistic approach to care that includes not only nutrition, but also many other services that help people on their path to behavioral health and wellness. The hospital is focused on care navigation, counseling and therapy, crisis counseling, intervention and stabilization, family support, inpatient care, medication management, nursing care, peer support, social work, and spiritual care. It’s a full, 360-degree approach to wellness.

A sample of the healthy food Unity Center prepares for patients, staff, and visitors.

“At Unity Center, we care for the whole person, we meet them where they are, and we aim to provide them with the tools and resources they need to thrive, once they leave our care,” said Melissa Eckstein, president of Unity Center. “Our Food and Nutrition team make a difference every day in all our lives, from their warm customer service to their friendly smiles and exceptional clinical care.”

– Story by Elizabeth Baker, elbaker@lhs.org. Video and photos by Melissa Mullineaux