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NHS Menu

Health Food

NHS MenueNo blog at the weekend because I had an unexpected trip to hospital with an attack of my old foe, biliary colic and ended up admitted for four days to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious than some seering pain. Luckily it wasn’t, although since I haven’t had a gallbladder since 1997, it’s a tad alarming that I’m getting pain in the area. I foresee even more medical appointments in my future.

Being a chronically ill person I am a bit of an expert on NHS appointments and by extension, since I think of little else, the food associated with the NHS. I attend no less than four hospitals in South London as an outpatient and have long since jokingly thought about blogging their lunch options for other who will be visiting too.

I haven’t had to be an inpatient since I moved to London and the last few times I was in hospital in Belfast, I’m not sure I was well enough to actually eat anything so I’ve not been sure if the unflattering comments about hospital food are still true.

At one point over the weekend, I wasn’t sure if I’d get to test the theory as I was both nil by mouth for three days and had zero appetite. I studied the five page hospital food menu in the abstract way you might with a guidebook for somewhere you’ll never visit and dreamed of a glass of ice cold Diet Coke with lots of lemon instead to quench my thirst.

However eventually I was allowed to start eating again and I started paying attention. King’s College Hospital offers the above five page menu to all patients, along with halal, kosher, Caribbean, gluten free and dairy free options, low residue and renal safe diets. They feed thousands of people a day, most of whom are homesick, ill and in need of some cheer as well as nutrition.

The menu was surprisingly comprehensive and packed with choice. There were no less than 7 vegetarian options and at least 3 that were vegan. There was curry, roast dinners, lots of fish and a mix of the light and easy to eat and the heartier for building people back up again. They’d tried to sign post everything possible to help you make good choices as they need you to eat no matter what it is.

They’d thought of pretty much everything in fact. Except what to do if someone came in and needed a low fat Fodmap friendly option like I did. Onions and garlic are my current kryptonite and I didn’t wish to aggravate issues further by risking them. But my inner Brit came out and I felt really awkward stopping a busy nurse to ask her to help pick out allium free options.

I need not have worried. The nurse was fantastic and we had a bit of a giggle about my digestive diva-dom and she then took the time to phone catering to ask them about the ingredients. They then went through ALL the options to let me know what was safe. We established all the soups had onions and that the fish dishes were all without and I was able to order cod in parsley sauce with carrot and swede mash with potatoes as my first meal in nearly 4 days and they brought it to me two hours early since I was so faint feeling at this point.

And you know what? It really wasn’t bad. Yes, it was the tiniest piece of fish I’ve seen in a long time, but it was hot, fresh and actually tasted of its component parts. The potato was real mash not reconstituted and the carrot and swede had just enough of that catering texture to be oddly comforting.

Both King’s and St Thomas’s Hospital are distinctly old fashioned these days and don’t have any fast food outlets on the premises, running central kitchens and a daily canteen for staff, visitors and patients where everyone eats the same food. I’ve been attending regular appointments weekly at St Thomas’s and eating lunch in their canteen and the price of a central London sandwich meal deal have been able to have a proper fresh hot meal rather than a limp sarnie.

There’s a touch of the school dinners about it as there’s vast portions of custard and crumble available everyday, but beyond that, it’s actually pretty good. You can have freshly cooked omelettes with your choice of filling, use the salad bar or soup or have one of five hot options which range from Cornish pastie and chips to fish or noodles.

Aside from the food, my favourite bit is that you can sit in the dining room overlooking the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Thames in possibly the finest view in London and watch a vast mix of people eating. Few things sum up London’s multiculturalism better to me than watching people of all races eat jollof rice with baked beans on the side and apple crumble for afters or a halal British roast dinner without batting an eyelid about it. Food here makes everyone the same and the atmosphere in both the dining room and the hospital is calmer than at a hospital like Guy’s where everyone has to go to McDonalds for lunch.

I understand the NHS has had to try and make money from commercial outlets coming to them and there’s many time I’ve been grateful for a branch of AMT or an M&S cafe to grab a coffee or tea when the canteen is shut, compared to the vending machines at the Maudsley. Yet I do worry that by turning food into a business transaction in a hospital or solely a nutritional aim like with the Eatwell plate the NHS promotes, it misses a crucial point of how food nourishes us. We need to combine it with being sociable and comforting and filling for it to have the best effect.

Choice within a structure here actually makes that easier to achieve so that people can seek out what they need at that time. Hospitals can take away independence so the highlight of the day is choosing your own lunch, but there’s something comforting to me about the NHS offering you options within reason like your parents did when you were a kid. Yes, sometimes you could stuff yourself on cake but other times, you had to choose which vegetable you were going to have.

The old fashioned centralised catering idea I’ve been eating at recently provides this caring choice perfectly and made me feel like someone was looking after me. I might have felt less so if I’d been eating poor quality slop dumped on a plate and wheeled round miles of wards before it got to me so it was cold and congealed like much hospital food still is. King’s steams all the food on the wards so it’s hot and fresh and they clearly use identifiable ingredients rather leaving you wondering if you’re eating horse in everything.

I think this style of cooking and eating is healthier in all senses of the word. All but one woman on my ward was very happy to eat the food provided, and frankly I’ve never met anyone so hard to please in my entire life. The nursing and catering staff attempted to answer every question and encourage you to eat, making tea and coffee to exact specifications, offering you several types of jam with your toast and providing biscuits from a local bakery for afternoon tea. They then ate the same things as we did.

I hope this experience wasn’t an outlying one and that more hospitals are starting to see the value rather just the costs of food for both staff and patients rather than simply renting their lobby out to Maccy D’s and Starbucks. I know the staff struggle to find more than lattes and biscuits on nightshifts and welcome the communal spaces with microwaves that St Thomas’s  offers everyone for their use.

Ironically now I’m home, I’m probably not going to be eating quite as well as I’m mainly existing on toast and microwaveable rice as I don’t have much appetite and have to be low fat and bland for a week or so. I think the slow cooker will be pressed into action tomorrow when I feel a bit more like getting out bed. My friends have been terrific, but sadly none of them has an extensive menu of tinned fruit about their person like the NHS offered me thinking it’s still 1972….

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Shooting 'Slow Cooked'

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Mr North shows some behind-the-scenes photography for the ‘Slow Cooked’ book, and shares the process of bringing these personal, beautiful recipes & exciting flavours to life.