Department of Health
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Recommendations to improve NHS hospital food

Dianne Jeffrey, Chairman of Age UK and leader of the Hospital Food Standards Panel, writes about the importance of good food in hospitals.

Going into hospital is often a very worrying experience. Not only are we undergoing treatment but we’re in an alien, clinical (literally) environment away from our family and home comforts. And this can be made much worse when we’re presented with uninteresting, unappetising food which doesn’t appeal or is simply too difficult to eat or drink.

Yet eating and drinking well are essential for a good and speedy recovery. We know that malnourished and dehydrated people take longer to recover and are more likely to suffer complications. We also know that one in four people of all ages going into hospital are already malnourished or at risk of malnutrition when they are admitted. So it’s just common sense that we make sure they get the right nutritional care.

It’s also important to remember that eating is such a central part of our lives and something that is often a great comfort and pleasure. So while of course we appreciate that hospitals are not five star restaurants, eating and drinking play a critical role in shaping our overall experience of hospital. Nor is food any good if it doesn’t reach patient’s stomachs. Providing the right kind of environment and the right support to eat and drink is an imperative.

We believe the Hospital Food Standards Panel’s recommendations, if implemented, will ensure that food and drink in hospitals across the country will be tasty and nourishing and readily accessible to patients – making it more likely people will want to eat and drink and, consequently, get better faster.

What’s more, as a major employer in the UK, providing healthier food options in hospitals will help not only patients and their visitors but also the tens of thousands of NHS staff who spend most of their waking hours in hospitals.

So what are we recommending?

We have asked the government to introduce 5 mandatory food standards with which all hospitals will have to comply. These will be legally binding and part of every hospital in the UK’s basic contract.

Crucially, we are recommending that every patient is screened for malnutrition and has a food plan that meets their social and cultural as well as their clinical needs. We are also recommending that hospitals ensure that patients get the help they require to eat and drink. We’ve all heard too many horrific stories of patients being unable to reach a glass of water or their meal, or being unable to open food packaging.

We are also recommending that food is sourced sustainably and that hospital canteens promote healthy diets for staff and visitors that comply with Government regulations on salt and sugar.

There are already many hospitals that serve high quality, nutritious, appetising food but until now it’s been up to each hospital to ensure that this is a priority.

We believe that if every hospital in the country has an overarching food and drink strategy guided by our recommendations not only will we help hospital patients at a difficult time in their lives but also support hospital visitors and NHS staff in staying healthy too.

Late last night I was with my 96 year old mother who is nearing the end of her life. Her lips and mouth were feeling ever dry, and she whispered to me how much she would like a peeled apple or pear. The kitchen at her care home was only too happy to oblige. I thought how wonderful it would be if older people everywhere could be given the same comfort.

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