While the clinical programming of a residential treatment facility is the most important factor for success, experts say good food can matter too. It’s one of the top factors potential clients consider when looking for treatment.
The therapeutic value of food is an aspect of treatment that can easily get overlooked, but those facilities that have invested the time and resources into developing high quality nutrition programs say it’s a worthwhile investment that not only models healthy behavior for patients but also benefits the facility itself by improving staff retention and recruitment.
Facilities can make simple changes such as incorporating more local produce or preparing more items from scratch to enhance the quality of the day’s menu. With a little planning, many choices also could result in cost savings along the way.
“There’s really no downside to giving your clients better quality, local produce,” says Constance Scharff, PhD, a senior addiction research fellow and director of addiction research at Cliffside Malibu in California.
Good for the patient
Cliffside Malibu has made a concerted effort to offer its residential clients high-quality, organic food made fresh by a professional chef each day because it’s what many of their high-end clients have come to expect. Also it’s in the best interests of the residents’ health and the facility’s marketability.
In fact, the Cliffside website includes photos of a buffet meal served on white rectangular dishes in a large room with lots of windows and natural light.
A balance of good food not only helps residents recover from what was mostly likely a poor nutritional state when they arrived at treatment, but also allows them to be more alert during the day, according to experts. However, patient preference is also a factor. No one wants to eat kale at every meal, for example, regardless of how healthful it might be.
“We want to convey proactively what healthy eating is, what balanced eating is and what that looks like in a way that doesn’t become stagnant,” says Brian Coon, director of clinical programs for Pavillon, a residential treatment facility located in North Carolina.
Pavillon’s in-house executive chef, Bryan Kilby, develops weekly seasonal menus that focus on flavor and texture variety as well as patient choice. He’s featured on the facility website, pictured in front of a large salad bar full of fresh options.
Scharff says providing an atmosphere that is comfortable for the patient—including offering food that’s well prepared—also gives patients fewer reasons to leave treatment before they’re clinically ready to move on.
Tim Dies, sous chef at Cumberland Heights in Nashville, says having quality food can also be a bright spot in the day for patients when they are doing the hard work necessary to recover.
“It’s something to look forward to,” he says.
Good for the facility
Marketing a specialized menu of offerings matters because the comfort of excellent food can be a differentiator for potential clients and their families. It’s often asked about by concerned family members who want to ensure their loved ones are well cared for. In marketing, good food can be a litmus test for the quality of the facility overall.
“Clinical programs want to talk about the clinical service, but a lot of times family members, referral sources or patients want to hear about food so it’s something that’s important to not overlook as an organization,” Coon says.
Dies says he believes Cumberland Height’s reputation for having good food has helped attract many of its clients. Likewise former patients talk about their culinary experience while in treatment.
Kilby says having a good nutrition program is often particularly important to parents.
“If patients come with their families and do a tour of Pavillon, they always make sure and stop by and talk to me because food is a big concern,” he says.
Providing a well thought nutrition program during treatment can also help set patients up to live a successful, healthy lifestyle once they leave the facility. Scharff says she credits the facility’s high recovery rate in part to the work the center does during treatment to prepare patients to make food choices once they leave treatment. The center claims a 70% recovery rate one year after treatment.
“It’s about creating a lifestyle where patients are going to have those moments of pause and think it through,” she says.
Marketing the food options a facility offers can be done by word of mouth, but treatment center experts say it’s also important to highlight the program on the facility’s website and marketing materials.
“We need to feature that just as strongly as our clinical and other services. While the techniques to do that seem basic, it might be too easy to forget. Even if you just add it in to the other bullet points and feature it as part of what you do, that can make a difference,” Coon says.
Ways to improve a program
Many residential facilities might opt for bulk, prepared food items for convenience and economy, but those that put resources into their food offerings believe adding more fresh, local options could save money in the long run. Consider net cost, including the ability to improve staff retention and patient satisfaction.
Scharff recommends seeking local farmers, butchers and other distributors to increase the amount of fresh food that has spent less time in transport. Farmers markets and cooperatives can be great sources of meat and produce. Even freezing seasonal fruit for use later in the year can be better than prepackaged frozen fruit that might contain added sugar or preservatives.