FEATURE - Hospital food is no laughing matter . . .

Chesterfield Royal, catering, Megan Dack uses a hand held device to take a patients meal choice
Chesterfield Royal, catering, Megan Dack uses a hand held device to take a patients meal choice

Hospital food has long been the butt of jokes and the focus of criticism - a bit like British Rail sandwiches were, as those of a certain age will recall.

But not any more, and certainly not at Chesterfield Royal Hospital.

Chesterfield Royal, catering, the food trolleys set off for the wards

Chesterfield Royal, catering, the food trolleys set off for the wards

The improvement has been very well documented on a national level - from the introduction of the Hospital Food Standards Panel to the involvement of the odd celebrity chef or two.

Gone are the days of pre-ordering meals, to arrive tepid, tired and unappetising the following day, with many patients having forgotten what they fancied for their dinner some 36 hours earlier.

Turnaround at Chesterfield Royal is now a little over two hours - from the point of ordering to the point of delivery.

And if you think about the actual scale of what is being achieved, it is a formidable task.

Chesterfield Royal, catering, Paula Ford preparing fruit crumbles

Chesterfield Royal, catering, Paula Ford preparing fruit crumbles

Around 600 individual meals - all ordered and delivered back to the patients’ bedsides, factoring in a dozen special dietary requirements, from vegan to gluten free.

All individually prepared - from solid to pureed, via mashable, depending on a patient’s requirements and state of health.

As I arrive at the hospital’s Ridgeway Ward the last of the lunch orders are being taken. It is around 9.30am and the deadline is 9.45am.

Nurse Jo Milner goes to the final few beds - largely elderly people, not many with huge appetites at present, most with traditional tastes.

Chesterfield Royal, catering, Caron Bromley

Chesterfield Royal, catering, Caron Bromley

One old lady doesn’t like soup, or gravy and doesn’t like the sound of chicken and leek pie, or cheese and potato bake.

Eventually she plumps for salmon fishcakes followed by rice pudding.

Jo adds the meal onto a tablet, along with the specifics of dietary need, and the entire ward order is then sent electronically to the kitchens.

To hit the deadline, all 32 meals must be back on the ward by 12.

“This system is much better,” she says. “Especially with the older patients, and those with dementia, as there is a much better chance that they will remember what they ordered, and actually eat the meal when it is delivered.”

It is about cutting down on waste -in these financially challenging times every penny counts.

But it’s also about the health and well-being of patients. If they are eating well it will help with their recovery.

Some patients also need building up, so their meals will be deliberately higher in calories, using full fat milk and cream.

And to hit the guidelines, every meal provided needs to provide at least 800 calories.

The kitchen is a good five minute walk away from Ridgeway, out on the other side of the hospital.

By the time I arrive, the ward’s order has been printed out and is passed to the catering staff to prepare.

Timing here is critical - the catering trolleys also double as ovens, and portions are added at three different stages, depending on cooking time.

In one corner, a fresh chicken tarragon is being prepared.

Once ready, it is blended into three different consistencies - regular, mashable and pureed, then portioned, blast frozen and stored for future use.

The freezer is massive - and stores literally thousands of meals, all coded, all rotated.

The tarragon chicken is delicious.

A separate ‘veg prep’ area is also busy, while in a side room, two assistants are preparing sandwich after sandwich.

It is a hive of activity, but bizarrely calm and ordered.

By 11.40am the ‘green ants’ - the staff who will be taking the trolleys and serving the meals on the wards - are at their stations.

They are nicknamed the ‘green ants’ because of the colour of their uniform, and because they emerge like ants from the kitchens, all heading in the direction of the wards.

Patient Services Manager Judith Short has been at Chesterfield Royal for 27 years - first as part of the trust’s internal catering department, before it was contracted out to catering firm Sodexo in 1999.

Her role is massive - not only in terms of ensuring quality, but also feeding into the health and wellbeing of hundreds of patients each day - twice a day - and she personally supervises the diets of patients who are struggling with the meal regime.

She tells me about a former patient who was a vegan, who was at first refusing food, but eventually left the hospital having gained weight, after a bespoke menu was planned and delivered.

She said: ”Someone who is quite ill can easily forget to eat, which is obviously not what we want to happen - nutrition is vital to recovery.

“If I sit with them I can usually get them to eat something, even if we have to establish the sorts of things they like to eat when they are well and at home, and this will give me some ideas to create a bespoke menu for them that serves their needs.”

The ‘green ants’ probe every piece of food to ensure it is within the required heat range, then the trolleys head out - pretty much on mass.

The temperature of the trolley destined for Ridgeway is 91 degrees when it leaves the kitchen at 11.50am. It is on the ward and plugged back in five minutes later. The trolley has lost ten degrees of heat in that time, but it is still easily within the required range.

The trolley then turns into a service station and it’s all hands on decks - every staff member on the ward is involved in service, from the matron down to healthcare assistants.

Back in the kitchen, the floors are cleaned and sanitised while the trolleys are out. They will be stripped and cleaned before they are reset in their starting positions.

Then dinner orders will be placed, and the whole process will begin again - twice a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year.