Hospital Food

My friend, Ricki, is back in hospital again for treatment. Today she posted a picture of her meal on Facebook. Rick is fortunate enough to be in the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Sydney, Australia (everyone calls it The SAN) and her meal includes freshly cooked fish and a delicious salad. Most of the items on her tray are reusable rather than disposable and everything is prepared on the premises.

What’s surprising about Ricki’s photo is how unfamiliar it will be to most people staying in a hospital other than the SAN. Even during my stay at the Mater, just down the road, I was shocked by the poor nutritional quality of the food. The food was reasonably tasty, but there were very few healthy options.

I wound up ordering double portions of their tiny side salad to get some leafy greens on my plate. The default option for most items was highly processed and single use packaging with lots of sugar. I could have flavoured yoghurt (full of sugar) but not plain yoghurt. I could have a white bread roll but nothing with seeds or wholemeal and certainly nothing gluten free.

Sweets were offered as standard with each meal and the catering staff seemed surprised when I chose not to have them. ‘Are you sure you don’t want the sticky date pudding?’ Yes, I am sure because I’m flat on my back for the next few days and not getting any decent exercise for a month or more so why are you feeding me sugar?

It just makes sense to me that if you want people to recover faster from treatment or surgery then giving them delicious, nutritious food will speed things along. There’s also the issue of the constipation that usually follows any surgery. How do they expect to get things moving with such an over processed menu?

Now that we understand how integral our gut health is to our physical and mental health, shouldn’t we be designing hospital food to repopulate our system with healthy bacteria? This just makes sense.

There’s also the psychological impact of opening the lid on yet another boring meal. If we’re in hospital and still able to eat then food is probably one of the few pleasures still left to us. Imagine the difference to patients if meals are something we can look forward to  and chefs get the opportunity to delight us.

Spare a thought too for the poor catering staff that serve this stuff up to patients. They’ll bear the brunt of all the complaints.

If food like this was a bit more expensive you could still justify it on the basis that people left hospital sooner. The thing is, anyone that works in catering will tell you it costs no more to serve up healthy food than it does to serve up processed meat and overcooked vegetables.

The desire for healthier food in the general population has seen a boom in companies providing fresh raw ingredients as well as packaged products. There’s also a much better understanding of the importance of nutrition and its impact on our physical and mental health.

The other worry with hospital food is all that disposable packaging. Often this is seen as ‘convenient’ but the truth is that the cost of all that packaging is built into the cost of the product. There’s also growing concern about the impact of leached chemicals from plastic packaging, particularly with foods that have a high fat content (like yoghurt and ice cream).

A meal constructed of half a dozen disposable packets, a plate of not very delicious food and disposable cutlery tells me, as a patient, that feeding me is an annoying consequence of my stay in your hospital. A tray full of freshly prepared, delicious food served on a real plate with a proper knife and fork makes me feel like a special guest. Simple.

And does anyone ever like eating their food with plastic cutlery?

When I asked about the menu at the Mater I was told that they were responding to what most patients wanted. Surely if what most patients want is an unhealthy diet then there’s a real opportunity to give them an experience of a healthy alternative. Giving people nutritious food might just help them to understand the difference between what they’ve been eating and what they should be eating, along with a personal experience of how much better they might feel with a few dietary changes. There’s a real opportunity for re-educating people with poor diets here.

This isn’t the first time Ricki has posted photos of her meals at the SAN. How wonderful to be in a hospital where the food is so good you want to show your friends. It begs the question; if the SAN can do this, why can’t everyone else?