The periodical issue of hospital food seems to have reared its head again – like a proverbial bad penny and I thought I might recount my experiences and thoughts on the issue.

Due to a serious illness a few years ago I spent nearly a month in a London hospital.

In general the nursing was exactly what you expect – generally very good, with the odd exception – so a bit like most services and industries in fact.

But the food, oh god the food!

Now, bearing in mind that the budget was about £2.40 per patient per day at the time (I gather it is now about £2.80), to provide three meals per day is actually bloody impressive.

But it is also so awful.

Firstly, breakfast was served after 9am, and supper before 5pm – hardly how anyone actually eats their meals. While we had a choice of meals, to be selected the day before, it was what I would call typical English stodge, along with “the vegetarian option”.

I quickly learnt that the veggie option could either be a quite decent spicy curry – or pasta cooked and reheated to the point that it was a plate of rubber in cheese sauce.

The key thing for me though, was less the quality or the taste, or the stupid hours it was served – but that none of the food was what I usually ate at home.

I am in hospital. I am in a strange bed, very ill and lacking any of the home comforts that most of us find so strangely helpful when stuck at home feeling poorly.

It is a psychologically very scary environment, which in itself is actually not that good at helping you to get better.

In this very unfamiliar environment, you are not even able to eat the sort of comfort food you might prefer to eat when ill.

Now, I am not actually saying that the NHS should lay on the sort of meals that would grace a good restarunt, and indeed, I did write to the NHS food czar after I left hospital with my views and suggestions.

It’s incredibly simple

Those who want food, supplied free at the point of use/consumption, can continue to get it.

However, those of us willing to, should be allowed to buy “ready meals” and similar from tesco, sainsburys, whatever and have it heated up by the hospital kitchen.

A Tesco finest meal is not nutritionally perfect – and probably not that different from the hospital food – but critically, it’s what a person will be used to eating.

In a strange scary hospital, eating familiar food is an unbelievably comforting experience.

I am far more likely to eat a Mediterranean ready-meal than I am shepherds pie that lacks any flavour or appeal to my preferences.

I cannot think there wouldn’t be a single supermarket that wouldn’t be delighted to supply their meals to hospitals, probably at cost price (increased overall sales leads to lower costs anyway), and the hospital could add 50p if they wanted to cover the heating costs.

Yes, I am paying for my meals – but it is also my choice – and indeed, as I am no longer consuming hospital food, my “budget” can be redeployed to the meals that everyone else is eating – so the effective budget might go from £2.80 per patient to maybe £3.00 per patient.

Sadly, the hospital I was staying in, I was rushed to in rather dire situation, and my (grudgingly tolerated) walks to the local newsagent was the limits of my physical ability at the time. A branch of Pret has since opened nearby, and I know that had it been there when I was in hospital, I would have brought lunch every day from that branch, just to get away from the bland hell I was experiencing in the hospital.

After I left, I wrote a letter and to their credit got a reply.

In essence, the idea I proposed is a good one, but it goes against a political principle that people should not be ALLOWED to pay for basic services provided to them while in hospital.

I am permitted to go out and buy food and eat it – but food delivered to my bed has to be provided at no cost.

As I learned from the reply I got, had I known about it – I could have asked friends to bring in ready meals, and the hospital would have heated them up for me, but I wasn’t told that at the time and it would have been difficult to expect friends to do that.

I could buy sweets and tabloid newspapers from the hospital shop – which is why I used to hobble to the other newsagent to buy decent newspapers and current affairs magazines. At the time, the local Tesco, had I even known about it was too far for me to be able to walk to.

But why not just formalise the system and let hospitals “sell” food to those who want to pay for it?

Ringfence the food budget if necessary to sell the political aspect of protecting the food allowance, but don’t let petty politics get in the way of letting people make a choice about what they want to eat.

Apart from prisons, is there any other institution that imposes such restrictions on what a person can eat?

Even taking into account the loss of appetite from the illness, hospital food is still the most effective weight-loss diet I have ever been on – and it annoys the hell out of me that 5 years later, the issue is still being talked about when such a damn simple solution exists.

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11 Comments

  1. Laura

    I was once an in-patient at a hospital that was due to close and therefore no longer had a kitchen so meals were ‘shipped’ in each day. I’m vegetarian and it took over a week before a vegetarian meal was supplied.

  2. claire

    I could not agree more with this. My four-week old nephew is currently in intensive care and obviously, both parents are constantly by his side and sleeping in the hospital.

    These people are in one of the worst situations possible and as parents of a very sick tiny baby, are hardly likely to pop home for dinner every night. Yet just one of them – his mother – is given a meal by the hospital, and that is inedible. There are a tiny number of very sick children in the paediatric ICU – can’t we afford to just look after their parents properly for this awful time?

    It seems ungrateful to complain about the lack or quality of food when someone is saving your child’s life. But you can’t bring yourself to leave the unit and you still have to eat and stay well yourself.

    Instead, my brother and his partner have been surviving on expensive hospital junk food (crisps, sweets), a couple of takeaways they could ill afford and food people have bought in for them to microwave. It’s not often I think the world needs more Tesco Metros, but one about 20 yards from the hospital gate, stocked with hundreds of ready meals, would be very welcome here.

  3. Having had rather too many stays in hospital I completely agree. Hospital food is at best dire, and many of the meals I was served up were completely inedible.

    The NHS needs to understand that food is a huge part of recovery – I appreciate the cost pressures that they are under, but as Ian says if they gave a cost option to those who are willing/able/prepared to pay it would leave more money available to those who cannot/will not pay so that everyone can have the sort of meals that people would be prepared to eat.

    Frankly the standard of food available to NHS patients in hospitals is nothing better than shameful.

  4. IIRC, one of the London hospitals (Kings, I think) was running a trial recently of rather than shipping in bulk-prepared food, heating it centrally, and then trying to get it to wards before it got cold, they simply bulk purchased microwave meals. They were presented as being specially-designed nutritionally-balanced meals for hospitals, but basically they were M&S microwave meals. They were heated up on the wards, and served there and then.
    I spoke to one of the dietitians at the time, and his comment was “It costs quite a lot more, but it’s worth it in medical outcomes, because people actually eat it!”

  5. Kate

    I have just spent two days in London Bridge Hospital (a private hospital) and the food was excellent. I agree that good food makes you feel better immediately.

  6. Jess

    I couldn’t agree more. When I was a teenager I spent an extended period of time in hospital. I was losing weight fast however, the food provided was nothing more nutritious than that found at a childs birthday party. Turkey twizzlers, bean, chips and the like. Furthermore, there seemed to be no differentiation between the size of meal that I, a teenager, got and that of the 3 year old in the bed next to me. My mother ended up bringing me expensive sandwiches and pasta salads as I refused to eat the reconstituted muck that was provided.

  7. Ian

    During a two week stay in St Thomas’ back in 2005 the late shift nurses would occasionally send out for curry and would include amenable patients in the round. As I moved towards the end of my stay there having this sort of much better food was a considerable help to my recovery.

    Had managed to blot out the overall blandness of the food I ate while in there, but given the privations most people endure in hospital it was just something I took in my stride, but making it a little bit better would absolutely go a long way to make things easier for all concerned.

  8. sheila forrester

    Why cant the NHS cuts stop providing free meals anyway, produce better food and charge the going rate for it, similar to the staff canteens they have. After if I wasnt in hospital I would be buying my own food wouldnt I !

    • IanVisits

      As the NHS budget has been ringfenced, there are no NHS cuts.

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