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INSIDE TRACK: The real judges of hospital food are the patients

NO-ONE goes into hospital for a fine dining experience.

Some people may wonder what the food will be like ahead of a planned operation, but I doubt it is top of the worry list for those dispatched by ambulance or sent in by their GP.

The average spell in hospital in Scotland is less than five days and it is just 3.2 days for emergencies. Assuming part of this period is spent feeling ill, being operated on or giving birth, I'm guessing by the time most patients get around to noticing the quality of the food they will be thinking about going home.

If they get a dinner which is tepid, if the potatoes are inedible or the vegetables watery, it doesn't matter much. It is when patients have to spend a long time in hospital, or endure frequent admissions, that the quality of the food becomes very important. That's probably why the people who have spoken out about the standard of hospital meals in Greater Glasgow and Clyde have been either cancer sufferers or relatives of the frail elderly.

Weeks of flavourless fodder can lead to weight loss and weakness. It deprives sick people of nutrition which is good for the soul let alone health in general.

The quality of food served to hospital patients - particularly those in for long periods - should be a higher priority.

Yesterday, Health Secretary Alex Neil launched a Great British Menu-style competition for NHS Scotland caterers which will consist of regional heats and a grand final.

Mr Neil says in the press release: "I want all patients to receive tasty, nutritious food when they are in hospital."

I have no problem with a fun contest to celebrate and reward NHS staff. But when it comes to ensuring all patients receive tasty, nutritious food, this initiative is the equivalent of popping some parsley on top of a dish to make it pretty.

First, it ignores the question: what is the difference between good and bad hospital food? Is it the amount of money spent on the basic ingredients? Is it whether the meals are cooked fresh, or cooked off-site, chilled and reheated? Is it the way they are served on wards? Is it whether special dietary requirements are remembered and adequately catered for? Or is it down to the head chef's recipe ideas?

Secondly, I've checked and the plan is to use catering college kitchens for the cooking and judging. Unless the contestants choose to cook their entry in a different town, chill it, deliver it, reheat it and wheel it round for a bit, it won't resemble the way food is prepared in some major hospitals. Dinners served at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary are still produced near Bristol. Greater Glasgow and Clyde has two "super kitchens" serving wards across the region.

Finally, when the press release says: "The winning menu will be reproduced across NHS Scotland," it means a copy of it will be circulated. There is no obligation for NHS boards to cook the items on it or replicate the methods used.

So by all means have a competition, Mr Neil. But put the judges at bedsides at mealtimes and don't tell the kitchens if you really want to start making a difference to hospital food.

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Health

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