Hospital food: Nutritious or ‘pig swill’?

A patient tucks into his meal. Picture: Neil Hanna
A patient tucks into his meal. Picture: Neil Hanna
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GOOD grub on a budget or unfit for human consumption? The subject of hospital meals has divided opinion and is now giving health chiefs plenty of food for thought.

Hundreds of readers who have eaten in wards across Lothian have shared their experiences after the Evening News revealed that NHS chefs had scooped a top catering award amid claims patients were turning their noses up at “terrible” meals.

A string of pictures depicting unappetising dishes served up at the Western General flooded social media but many other patients – and their relatives – praised the high quality of cuisine on offer.

Unnaturally bright macaroni cheese spooned on to a plate, notably without a vegetable in sight, does not fit with the depiction of “nutritious” meals NHS Lothian bosses hailed at their awards bash.

Other meagre dinners included a lone baked potato – lacking even a blob of butter as an accompaniment. But do these pictures tell the whole story of hospital menus?

Hospital chefs and many patients stand firm against the critics and insist that, while perhaps not restaurant standard, the food on offer is of a very high quality.

Every patient is presented with a three-course menu at lunch and supper, a choice of portion size and a tick-box for what extras like vegetables are wanted to accompany their meal.

Angela Wright, 70, who was recently discharged from the Western General following a week-long stay, described the dishes as “faultless”.

She was so impressed by her daily diet, that her personal thanks were delivered to hospital chefs on the back of the menu cards she completed every day.

“For breakfast, you had your choice of two different fruit juices, tea or coffee, various cereals, and rolls with jam or marmalade,” she said.

“Tell me a five-star hotel that would do better.

“There is fresh soup made every day, various selections of fresh vegetables and even desserts made for diabetics. It was fantastic. Two or three members of staff said they get complaints but I find it hard to believe and think they can’t be from people who cook for themselves.

“I think compared to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, it is brilliant at the Western and at St John’s too.”

The health board has a catering budget of £4 million a year – excluding the ERI which sees meals outsourced.

There, food is brought in frozen by the firms that run the hospital.

But elsewhere, food is cooked fresh and mostly on site.

Figures released through Freedom of Information legislation reveal spending on hospital meals increased last year – costing anywhere between £3.35 and £6.14 a serving.

Bruce Stewart underwent two operations at the ERI in 2011, both of which involved a five-day recuperation period in the hospital.

His verdict was damning, branding dishes at the city’s flagship hospital as varying “between slops and pig swill”.

He said: “The only edible things were the Weetabix for breakfast and a roll if you could get it.

“My wife had a similar gastronomic experience in the Royal Infirmary in 2013.

“When she mentioned it to her surgeon he said that he was aware of the poor quality of the food provided and said that it would do her no harm if she didn’t bother to eat much for a few days.

“My brother-in-law, however, spent last week in the Western General and he said that the food was pretty good.”

Standards may vary, but Mark Shipton, catering manager based at St John’s – which dishes up 1200 meals a day – said there was no doubt his team of staff took pride in what they produced for patients.

Ingredients for all meals, from carrot and coriander soup to salmon and dill fish cakes, were carefully measured before chefs made the meals fresh each day.

They are then cooked in batches to avoid any dishes being left too long to be served.

Dishes can even be made to order, he said.

“People are generally pleasantly surprised with what we do here and how we meet patients’ nutritional needs,” he said.

“We do make everything fresh and in-house, there’s a good team that work hard to exceed people’s expectations and we do get a lot of positive feedback from patients which means a lot.

“When you get thank you cards from patients who have taken the time to write after they have been ill in hospital, it is really rewarding.”

With the health board plating up approximately 2.5 million meals annually, it is to be expected they might not always be to everyone’s taste.
Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian and her party’s food spokeswoman, encouraged the health board to use the feedback to help develop its new food strategy.

“I think we do need to raise our ambitions for the quality of food served in our hospitals but budgets are always tight and so I’d welcome some new thinking with a focus on using more local and fresh ingredients,” she said.

“I’m sure NHS Lothian will be noting the experiences that people are sharing and I’d like to see them involve patients more pro-actively in a review of their menus.”

‘I wouldn’t have given it to my dog’

A flavour of reader comments from Facebook

Tabbi McGhee: “I was in the ERI for two and a half weeks in April and was glad I couldn’t eat. The food looked so vile that I wouldn’t have given to my dog let alone sick people. I honestly couldn’t identify what a pasta dish was one day – except to describe it as grey slosh.”

Charlotte Gibson: “The chefs do a great job at the Western, they cater for all different dietary requirements. Let’s be thankful that our elderly are actually getting fed as so many in other countries don’t. Yes it might not always look appealing, but it’s nutritious and that’s the main thing for sick people is it not?”

Sylvia Akers: “Totally agree after spending time in the WGH recently lost tons of weight – isn’t it bad enough that cancer was making me lose weight but hardly ate morsel of the food they dished up. The care I was given by nursing staff on the other hand was second to none, even if looking at some of the meals made me want to vomit. I was served black potatoes one day oh and even they were raw. Still prefer the WGH to the ERI any day of the week.”

Andrena Crawford: “My husband has had several spells in the Western in the past couple of years and has never had poor food. There is always plenty of it too and he usually asks for the ‘smaller’ portion size. As he says, who needs a huge meal when you are lying in bed doing little exercise?”

Alison Corbett: “I was in the Royal for three weeks and the food is horrible. I think prison inmates get better quality food. Portions were small, food processed and tasteless. I had to get food brought in as I felt it wasn’t helping me as a couldn’t eat and I am diabetic.”

Colleen Kae Fitzpatrick: “It’s really all about the kind of diet the patient can have. Pretty doesn’t make it easier to swallow if the patient has swallowing problems. Or for that matter, teeth.”

Lorraine Eardley: “It’s stovies. How else is it supposed to look?!? It’s the exact same food us staff here eat in the canteen. Ten times better than the frozen stuff bought in for the Royal.”

Julie MacNab: “The care in the Western was excellent but the food absolutely disgusting. The plastic bowls used to serve soup/puddings were all horrible and the cutlery never felt clean. I think in the six days I was there only one meal was enjoyable.”

Lorraine Moore: “Aw come on, when do stovies ever look good? The food in the Western is excellent considering how many the staff cater for and how low the budget is. Patients can order what they want off the menu.”

Derek Patterson: “The meals in question by the patient and family were obviously not of the required standard. But in view of Mark Greenaway’s comments re some meals becoming sloppy due to extended standing times prior to serving, the catering teams need to do some basic R&D to see which meals are better suited to the system of serving up in a hospital environment.”

Christine Cooper: “The Western generally is okay for food, except portion sizes could be bigger, extra large portions could reflect the description.”