How to Create a Hospital Food Service Environment That Encourages Rest and Relaxation


When it comes to patient care, hospital dining areas should not be an afterthought. Rather, hospital cafeterias should comprise an integral part of the healing process. The culture change in healthcare means treating the whole patient and not just their illnesses, and creating the proper dining atmosphere is essential to this process.

Creating an inviting, relaxing cafeteria environment is good not just for patients, but visitors and staff as well. Hospital staff need a place to relax on their breaks, a place where it doesn’t seem as if they are still working. Visitors, often under extreme stress, need a comforting place that allows them to rejuvenate and address the more pressing problems at hand.

Hospital cafeterias, despite their great potential to act as grounds for revitalization, have a reputation for being some of the most unpleasant places on earth. How can they be turned from dismal and gloomy places to bright and healthy centers of healing?


The first aspect that hospital cafeterias must address is design. An example of how a hospital can create the right aesthetic through design can be found in the recent remodel of the Kaiser Permanente of Hollywood. This particular remodel was accomplished through a much higher budget than most hospitals can afford. However, the principles employed are the principles that should be implemented, on whatever scale financially possible.


Kaiser’s newly designed cafeteria includes massively high windows that look out upon Sunset Boulevard, allowing for a nice view as well as plenty of natural light.

While knocking down walls to put in new floor to ceiling windows may not be feasible, it is a good idea to simulate natural light as much as possible. The goal is to provide a homier, more comfortable feel.

Here are some ideas to keep your hospital’s cafeteria in a cheerier light:

    • Paint in bright, warm colors and consider hiring local artists to add murals to the walls, providing an alternative view in an enclosed environment.
    • Avoid using fluorescent light and install bright but warmly toned lights.
    • Vary the light fixtures, rather than relying on standard overheads.


Seats should be arranged to foster intimacy. Kaiser uses large, upholstered chairs and arranges them around coffee tables in such a way as to create a comfortable, lounge-like feel.

Recreate a lounge-like and private atmosphere in your cafeteria with these ideas:

    • Organize seats to create small, intimate groups that can connect with each other.
    • Invest in seating that has high backs, arm rests and comfortable upholstery.
    • Place coffee tables in the centers of seating areas.


Natural-feeling barriers should be set up to further foster the feeling of intimacy. Research indicates that people feel most comfortable when somewhat enclosed but still have a feeling of space.

Give people this sense of comfort while also creating more privacy with these design ideas:

    • Place plants or dividing walls between seating areas.
    • Designate staff-only eating sections to allow hospital employees an environment separate from patients during break times.


Cafeterias are high-traffic areas, and if they aren’t properly managed they can create bottlenecks and long lines.  Well-designed walkways are essential to the comfortable feel of a hospital cafeteria.

Relieve the stress of patients, visitors and staff with these walkway ideas:

    • Use floor plans to direct traffic to coffee and food stations, as seen in the Kaiser remodel.
    • Consult with a consumer behavior specialist who specializes in creating floor plans.
    • Keep walkways wide enough for passing wheelchairs and patients with other mobility issues.
    • Prevent crowds from hovering over tables by placing self-serve, pick-up and ordering areas separate from seating sections.


The food served is, of course, important. Many hospitals of late have started hiring top professional chefs to serve food that is both healthy and pleasing to the palate. Though this practice can be more expensive than hiring less experienced employees to man the meals, it can be a worthwhile investment. Healthy, delicious food doesn’t just feed the body, but it feeds the spirit as well and contributes greatly to overall well-being. Having genuinely enticing options in-house also allows busy hospital workers to take a real break, sit down and relax for a while, rather than having to run out to eat somewhere else.


Hospital visitors are typically under a lot of stress, and the cafeteria can provide an opportunity to escape the waiting room. However, being away from the waiting room also means possibly missing an update on their loved one’s condition. Because of this, cafeteria trips are potential points of high stress.

With the assistance of technology, many hospitals have found ways to relieve some of this anxiety. Some hospital cafeterias feature update monitors, similar to the arrival and departure monitors found at airports, with information on patients waiting for surgery or other procedures. Visitors are given a code and can rest assured that they are not missing any important updates while they eat, drink or rest in a more comfortable setting. Another more economical option is to give pagers to visitors, similar to the ones used by, which will alert guests if there is a change in the patient’s status.

While most of these innovations require at least some financial backing, they are essential for creating a healing environment within the hospital cafeteria setting. With some research and creativity it is possible to make a positive difference in any hospital cafeteria setting, no matter the budget.


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Sara Henderson

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