Comment

We can’t wait 10 years for perfection, hospitals must improve food and nutrition choices now

Almost 40 per cent of patients said they were unhappy with the quality of the food they were given

Prue Leith

Nobody wants to be in hospital, and many patients lack appetite. So it’s all the more important that hospital food is appetising and nutritious and that meals are a pleasurable break in the day.

The NHS is the second biggest provider of meals in the UK public sector. Last year it served 141 million meals to patients. This is a perfect opportunity to set the standard for nutritious, quality food, both for patients and for workers.  The Hospital Food Review was set up to make recommendations to deliver this.

Of course we found hospitals which are not doing well, but we also found great work taking place. To my surprise, we found first-rate hospital meals provided by all sorts of systems, from factory-produced food delivered frozen to hospitals and reheated on the ward, to fresh food cooked on site.

The common denominators of “good” practice seemed to be that wherever the food was cooked, it was done so by skilled trained chefs using fresh good ingredients and traditional cooking methods; that staff and patients were offered the same food;  that they could eat together; and that nutritious food, with fresh ingredients, was available on-site at all times so a patient (or a nurse ) hungry at midnight could get a bowl of soup and a slice of toast.

But there is a lot to do -  39 per cent of patients were unhappy with the quality of the food they were given. Many staff on night shift are eating unhealthy food from vending machines. And we know that past lapses in food safety in the food chain have had tragic consequences.

To address these deficiencies, and others, the panel has made a number of vital recommendations. They include attracting, training and motivating chefs to join the healthcare sector, better facilities, a renewed focus on food safety, and establishing hospital catering as a professionally recognised and rewarding career path, providing a 24/7 food service for patients, and a requirement for nurses and dietitians to work  closely with the caterers.

These are substantial recommendations, and they will be taken forward by a review body consisting of senior medical and nursing staff, dietitians, caterers and administrators, many of whom have already made successful changes in their own hospitals and are enthusiastic about helping others improve.

We also produced a checklist for chief executives and catering managers, which I hope will embed the importance of good food into all hospital decisions. This, for some hospitals will be nothing short of a major culture change. The Government’s plans to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 provides a real opportunity to put nutrition first, and make sure these recommendations are taken on board.

But we can’t wait 10 years for perfection. All hospitals, if they recognise the importance of good food to health and happiness, will get on board now.