NHS staff 'ashamed' they can't serve good food to patients

Matt Hancock ordered an extensive review of hospital food following a 2019 listeria outbreak, in which six patients died

NHS staff feel "ashamed and humiliated" that they cannot serve good hospital food to patients, a report has found, as it recommended sweeping changes to improve nutrition and presentation.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, ordered a root and branch review of NHS food, following last year’s listeria outbreak, in which six hospital patients died after eating pre-packed sandwiches.

The review, led by celebrity chef and restaurateur Prue Leith, has called for hot, healthy food to be available at all times, served on china plates, with patients encouraged to eat in dining rooms rather than in bed.

Although the authors stopped short of banning sandwiches altogether, they said they could not be the only option on a menu, and have called for the end to using powdered, packet soups. 

They also said that sandwiches should not be served out of a box, but removed from packaging, cut into quarters and placed on plates with a garnish. 

The review was led by celebrity chef and restaurateur Pru Leith, who said: “Food is not only important to health, but to morale. Hospital mealtimes should be a moment of enjoyment and a pleasure to serve" Credit: John Lawrence/Picture for News

The authors said it was wrong that mothers who gave birth in the middle of the night, or people who had come out of surgery, could often not have a hot meal or a cup of tea because they had missed dinner times. 

Patients who cannot sleep should also be able to get a hot drink and snacks throughout the night, they recommend.

Prue Leith said it was important to realise that food is medicine, and patients were entitled to "crisp toast for breakfast, a delicious lunch with a friendly word, and a cup of tea willingly served in the middle of the night". 

However, she warned that technically nutritious, yet unappetising, food is also unhelpful "if it goes in the bin". 

“Food is not only important to health, but to morale,” she said.

“Hospital mealtimes should be a moment of enjoyment and a pleasure to serve. They should inspire staff, patients and visitors to eat well at home.”

The NHS provides 140 million meals each year to patients but a recent survey by the Patient’s Association found that 39 per cent of staff thought catering was poor. 

The Department of Health and Social Care said the report should act as a blueprint for hospitals and said many of the recommendations could be implemented immediately.

Under the recommendations, patients will be given digital menus on electronic tablets, which have already been personalised with dietary, cultural and nutritional requirements.

A new NHS catering apprenticeship scheme is also recommended after the report found that "real chefs are a thing of the past" in hospitals as most would rather work in restaurants.

Although the authors acknowledge that hospital food did not conjure the glamour of "micro-leaf garnishes, parmesan crisps and yuzu drizzle", NHS chefs should be trained to feel pride in helping patients recover.

The Health Secretary said coronavirus had highlighted the importance of good nutrition.

“This pandemic has demonstrated more than ever the importance of good food and proper nutrition,” said Mr Hancock. 

“We must all prioritise our health and be empowered to eat well, whether we’re at home or in hospital.”

The report calls for a food service dietitian for every trust and a full-time dietitian for every hospital with more than 2,000 beds. Hospital kitchens will be upgraded, with kitchen areas built into the wards of new hospitals, so that food is still hot when it arrives at bedsides. 

Rachel Power, chief executive of The Patients Association, said: “Good food is essential for patient recovery so this review could be game-changing in turning the tide on poor-quality food being served across English hospitals. But only if the recommendations are implemented in full.”  

Although the report authors acknowledge that coronavirus has the focus of the NHS at present, they say it would be a mistake not to concentrate on improving food immediately. 

“Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of good nutrition,” the review states.