Is hospital food on the mend?
The nutritional needs of patients have never been a priority in the kitchens of our hospitals
Dietitian Fiona Dunlevy with an example of dishes at The Coombe Womens Hospital. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
It’s one of the most talked-about aspects of being in hospital, and usually for all the wrong reasons. “How’s the food?” is often the first question people ask when visiting a sick friend or relative in hospital, and the answer is almost invariably “Horrible”.
But does it really have to be this way? Why do we have to associate stodgy porridge, cold scrambled eggs, tasteless meat and gravy, chips and dried-up peas with the average fare served up to patients in wards across the State? Can catering staff do better and, if so, how?
Helen Bourke-Barnwell couldn’t believe the poor quality and choice of food available when her daughter was in hospital recently to have her appendix removed.
“When children are recovering from an operation, they need to have food that is appetising and nutritious, and all she was offered were cereals, which were high in salt and sugar, and white toast,” she says.
“We know now that the digestive system is so central to health and this point is ignored in Irish hospitals, from children’s hospitals right up to the private hospitals,” says Bourke-Barnell, who has observed the diets of sick older relatives in private hospitals in Dublin too.
“My daughter had been fasting for three days, yet she nearly retched when she saw the food she was offered. There was no tasty smell and nothing appealing about it. I felt I needed to get her home to give her good food to get her better,” she says.
As a parent staying over in the hospital, she also felt the quality of food in the canteens and vending machines was very poor.
Bourke-Barnwell says that, like everyone, she is aware of the financial cutbacks within the HSE but she firmly believes there needs to be a Government initiative to set aside funds for integrating nutrition into the healthcare model.
“We’ve known about superfoods for a long time now – that green juices are healing and how to use berries and honey instead of sugar – yet adults, children and mums who have just given birth are still getting deep-fried chicken breasts with potatoes and peas, and sweetened yogurts, in hospitals.”
Prof Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist and head of the obesity unit at St Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown, Dublin, agrees that hospital food is often awful. “Hospitals need to put nutrition higher up on the scale because the implications for long-term health are huge if we all eat more healthily,” says O’Shea.
He says that when people are in hospital they are more open to making changes and this opportunity is lost if more attention isn’t placed on nutrition.