Food for thought – what patients are given to eat

From cling-film to strange bubble shapes on hospital food, it comes out nothing like its menu description


Last year I tweeted a picture of my hospital dinner which, on the menu, was called “Baked potato and Filling”. On the plate before me were four egg-sized boiled potatoes with black spots blanketed in a tar of congealed cheddar. My Twitter feed was horrified.

As someone who spends maybe a quarter of their year in hospital, it was less surprising. I’ve tried to find ways around the plates of unidentifiable viands drenched in liquid masquerading as “sauce”.

In hospital I exist on cereal, cheese, crackers and whatever else I can afford. Usually around two weeks in, I will openly fantasise to whichever unfortunate staff member has to listen about cooking kale, chicken and brown rice. Or salad. Or spinach. Anything clean, identifiable and healthy.

Sometimes I’ll look up recipes and hoard them with excitement. If something in the corridor smells good, on a particularly bad day, I’ll follow it to find where it’s coming from. I’m aware how crazy that sounds. Any long-term patient knows that in hospital you lose money and gain a weird longing to slave over a stove.

Despite the fact my illness requires a high-calorie diet, in hospital I shut down expectation, break my bank account, and hoard the cheese and crackers when they arrive up in packaged form.

Daily food supplies, including coffee, snacks and lunch, amount to €15. The option for the night is cereal, toast or takeout. Take-out and delivery costs about €10-€15 but there is no official meal after 4.30pm. The daily cost is anything between €20-€30 to feed yourself a day. Or you can eat the food.

Those on special diets, like I am, have options. There is a menu full of delightful- sounding dishes like chicken, sweet and sour pork, spring rolls and extras. Sadly, what it says on paper is not replicated in reality.

The chicken, dry and rubbery, can be navigated by lifting the top off the breast and eating the middle, being sure to stop before you hit the bony bottom which often sports red dashes and odd shapes, something like the imprint of bubble wrap.

I have asked about this phenomenon and gotten no certain answer as to why these bubble shapes appear on my chicken breast. I like the roast beef. It’s cut thinly and looks and tastes like beef. I try to request it every day but it doesn’t always come up.

Boiled potatoes and Brussels sprouts are the safest sides and the aftertaste of washing-up liquid is faint when doused in the ol’ reliable tomato ketchup. Another time, tuna arrived wrapped in cling-film, above it another layer of chopped eggs and lettuce wrapped over it.

The pong of cling-film clung to my food but hunger and the length it takes for someone to rectify the problem ploughs through such smells. It is useless to mention the fact that the medication erases appetite anyway, making eating an already complex experience.

During one six-week admission last year, I stood at the main door waiting for a food order from Butler’s Pantry. I salivated with happiness at the sight of the chicken and swede mash. Walking the precious cargo to the ward, I imagined sinking my teeth into it, how good it would taste and how thankful my body would be.

I arrived back to the ward practically bouncing and was greeted with what I assumed was a joke. The microwave had been banned for patient use. I argued it out.

Here was the new rule: you as a patient cannot bring in external food to use in the microwave that is inches away. However, a staff member can heat external food – but they cannot do it for you. And you cannot place your pre-packaged food in the fridge because the food is “external” and it is yours, but the staff member can place their prepackaged food in the fridge, because it belongs to them.

I asked the nurse whether they would like my Butler’s Pantry feast to eat. They couldn’t accept it. So I walked into my room and slid it into the bin listening for the thud. In the morning, the smell of chicken hung in the room.

Of course, health and safety is important, but so is sanity. A Jamie Oliver-style revamp could help the situation.

It is not difficult to make cheap, edible food. Being dependent on friends to bring in meals strips another little piece of dignity that one clings to when in the hospital environment. The anxiety it causes is something hospitals should not create.

I eat things in hospital I don’t eat at home: take-away foods, white bread, excessive amounts of cereal, mysterious sauce-covered shapes I wouldn’t feed my cat. I get bloated and tired from it. I spend too much time on it.

Sometimes, when I feel well enough, I skip the joint and head to Tesco to stock up on stuff I can eat in the space of 24 hours. If they allowed fridges for long-term patients, it would be easier, but they don’t. Or microwaves to heat up grub brought in by wonderful friends, but they don’t. Ironically, it’s a health and safety thing that disregards health and sanity.

I stuck a Facebook status up asking friends what the worst thing they have been served in hospital is.

Being a well-hospitalised bunch, their overwhelming answer was “The everything.”

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