Hospital Births and Vegan Meals
In the year 2000 I gave birth to my daughter, Emily, in the hospital. During my two-day postpartum stay I made a futile attempt to explain my vegan diet to the cafeteria staff. My husband and parents ended up having to bring me food or I would have starved.
Three years later I found myself in the same boat; pregnant and planning a hospital birth. This time I wanted to be sure I would be fed properly. I knew I had to tackle this problem well before I arrived for the birth, so two months before my due date I took a tour of the hospital and asked if it would be possible to get vegan meals during my stay. I was assured that this would be no problem and was given the phone number of the hospital dietician so I could make arrangements. I was impressed and hopeful.
One month before my due date I called the dietician and explained my needs. She also assured me it would be no problem, that they’d had other vegan patients in the past, and then proceeded to ask me some questions. Here is roughly how the conversation went.
Dietician: Where do you get your protein?
Erin: (sighing). Legumes, nuts, soy products and soymilk.
Dietician: Ah, well, I suppose that will have to do then. I’m not sure I can get you enough protein with those choices but for just 2 days in the hospital I suppose you won’t suffer too much. I’ll be sure they have some soymilk handy for you right after the birth.
Erin: Er, alright.
Dietician: Now when is your due date?
Erin: August 6.
Dietician: And what day will you be arriving? I ask because we don’t normally carry vegan foods on the premises and I’ll have to make sure the chef has food for you on hand.
Erin: Well, I don’t know when I’ll go into labor. It could be two weeks before that due date or two weeks after.
Dietician: Well I’ll need a better estimate than that. Why don’t you call me 2 days before you have the baby so I have time to get food stocked for you.
This should have been my first clue that things weren’t going to work out too well for me. Still, I clung to the hope that she would somehow be able to get me vegan meals. I told her I would call her as soon as I went into labor but that that was the best I could do. She assured me, again, that it would be no problem. She would make sure I had tofu, soymilk, and beans during my stay.
One week before my due date I packed my bags to take to the hospital. My postpartum bag contained trail mix, granola bars, Luna bars, nuts, and dried fruit. You can tell how much confidence I had in that hospital dietician.
I went into labor the evening of August 1 and gave birth five hours later on August 2. I settled into my postpartum room at 4:30am. The last thing I told the nurse before I fell asleep was that I was vegan. She said it was noted on my chart and not to worry, the cafeteria staff was already aware of my special needs. I dreamed of vegan pancakes while I slept.
When my breakfast tray came I greeted it eagerly. I removed the top off the plate and was greeted by scrambled eggs, a blueberry muffin, cream of wheat with cow’s milk, some grapes, and coffee. I quickly grabbed the delivery person before she could leave and protested, “This isn’t vegan. I’m supposed to get a vegan meal.” She shrugged and took the tray away and said, “You told us you were vegetarian. There’s no meat on the tray.” I explained what I did and did not eat and she asked what she should bring me. Not knowing what they had, I asked for a plain bagel with jelly and some fruit. And that’s what they sent me. I was sure lunch would be better. I supplemented my breakfast with a granola bar. By the way, there was no soymilk in sight.
For lunch they brought me a salad with no dressing and a bowl of grapes. Was I being punished? I supplemented with more food from my stash. Still no soymilk graced my tray.
For dinner they brought me steamed vegetables, a bowl of fruit, and angel food cake. I asked my nurse for the phone number to dietary so I could explain my needs more clearly. They were shocked that egg whites were a no-no on the vegan diet. I gave them a list of ideas for foods to serve me: pasta with marinara sauce, stir-fried vegetables with tofu in soy sauce, a plain baked potato, a veggie burger, a large fruit plate, a grilled vegetable sandwich, etc. They said they would do their best. By this time I was starving so I sent my husband out to our favorite restaurant and he brought back vegan sandwiches. We feasted!
For breakfast the next day I got buttermilk pancakes, more cream of wheat with cow’s milk in it, the obligatory bowl of grapes, and juice. I nearly tore my hair out in frustration. I called down to dietary again and now I didn’t bother to hide my annoyance. “I’ve told you guys repeatedly that I don’t eat dairy. No eggs, no butter, no cheese, no milk…” She interrupted and said, “We didn’t send up any milk. We sent you juice.” I explained that there was milk INSIDE the pancakes. “Ohhhhh,” she said, “we thought you just didn’t drink milk. It says here ‘no dairy.'” I told her again what I could and could not have and gave them a plethora of ideas for what to feed me. They assured me lunch would be better.
For lunch I got a salad with Italian dressing (that was actually vegan), and a large plate of cut up fresh fruit. Hey, at least it was entirely vegan. Still no soymilk in sight, however. And by this point I still hadn’t seen a bean, nut, seed, or legume of any kind.
For dinner they sent me a wonderful vegan stir-fry with a garlic soy sauce that was actually quite delicious and some seasoned rice! Okay, they sent it up with some mashed potatoes with chicken gravy and a piece of apple pie that was clearly not vegan and had to be tossed, but at least I didn’t go hungry that night.
My last meal was to be breakfast the next day. I pulled off the cover and saw… a cheese omelette. I nearly went postal. My husband told me to just forget it since I was leaving soon anyway, but I was determined that they would rectify their mistake before I left. I called dietary and spoke very irately to the person on the phone. Mind you, I had major pregnancy hormones raging through my body so this person had no chance. I insisted they bring me a new meal and demanded a large plate of fruit, 2 bagels, and lots of juice. So, 20 minutes before I was discharged my meal arrived (closer to lunch at this point) and I ate it most heartily!
Needless to say I was very disappointed with the hospital’s ability to provide vegan meals for me. They didn’t even seem to understand what my needs were after I explained it to them several times. And where was the soymilk, tofu, and veggie burgers I was promised? My next order of business is to write a letter to the hospital administrator and the hospital dietician so that hopefully the next vegan person who stays in their hospital will be properly fed.
My advice for anyone having a hospital birth is as follows:
- Call the hospital dietician and try — I repeat try — to explain your needs ahead of time.
- Pack a lot of extra food to take to the hospital with you. It could be all you have after you give birth.
- Find out where the nearest restaurants are that can provide you with vegan meals of substance. See if they will deliver to your room.
- Let family and friends know that they might have to bring you something to eat when they visit. Ask them to call you in advance of their visit to see if you need anything.
- Don’t be afraid to call dietary and request what you need. Tell your nurses what you need so they can help you get it.
- Bring a written list of foods you can and cannot eat and have it sent to the cafeteria. Keep several copies handy for shift changes.
- Don’t bring anything to the hospital that you could use as a weapon. The combination of hormones and bad service could land you in jail if you know what I mean.
- Write a letter to the hospital if you have to. The more of us that speak up now, the better the chances that future vegan mommies will have something to eat after they give birth.
- And last, but not least, bring your own soymilk!