SERIES: Tips to improve your patient experience: #2 Help hospital food taste better
Once medical staff have helped to stabilise me after my ulcerative colitis flares and I am no longer sleeping all day and am feeling less nauseous and more like my old self, I begin to feel hungry. It’s a great sign that I am on the road to recovery. But oh, how depressing it is therefore to see the food on the hospital tray. In my case, after a flare, I am limited to the blandest of bland — mostly white-coloured — food. No fruit. No vegetables. Nothing with fibre. Grim.
But hospital food does not exactly have a great reputation, even without having to accommodate special diets. And yet, we all know how vital it is that we eat if we want to recover and go home! Not eating enough means we get weaker, move less, lose muscle tone and bone density, are more prone to infections and falls, all of which means we will be staying longer in hospital. So eating is vital.
And almost more important is drinking enough. Keeping your whole system well hydrated so you don’t feel dizzy and can flush out those drugs at the right rate.
But ….eeeuuurrrgghhhhhh… chewing over-cooked meat and drinking plain water is not exactly appetizing, is it?
Over the years I have developed some coping strategies and it seems others have too as patient forums are full of tips on how to eat well in hospital. I thought I would share some of them with you and would love to hear any that you may have.
But, of course, before I go any further I have to say that it is really important that you check with the nurses and your dietician before you start jazzing up your hospital platter. It could be that you HAVE to eat that bland, pureed stuff for a reason and perhaps your health condition precludes you from having too much sugar, salt, fiber or other (of the really good-tasting) stuff, so always check first.
That said, once you have the green light, here are some ideas:
1. Salt & Pepper
These are the most important two things to have for every hospital meal as they’ll make anything taste better (in moderation of course, and after checking with your dietician). I collect small sachets of salt and pepper and have them in my hospital bag ready to go, but some people even take in their own grinders!
3. Jams (Jellies for American readers)
Why oh why is there never enough jam for my bland white bread in the morning? I know it is sugar-y and I am not meant to overdose on the stuff and it should definitely be without the little black pips in it, but still… could I not have just a little more? Well, yes, actually it turns out I can. I just have to supply it myself. And so that is what I do.
4. More, please!
Portion control is important. Of course it is. But I have not eaten normally for weeks and weeks so now that I finally want to eat, why am I given so little?! It’s agonising! I am often hungry in hospital. Healthy snacks are the answer. Find out what you are allowed to have and then ask your visitors to bring a few bags in and stock up your side cabinet!
5. Outside catering.
My very favourite visitors are the ones that bring me home-cooked meals or snacks. I remember an aunt packaging up a shepherd’s pie in tinfoil and bringing it still warm to the hospital for my mother and how she hmmmm and aaaahhhed appreciatively through the whole thing! Not everyone is lucky enough to have bedside food delivery from friends and family, of course, but some hospitals will allow you to call for takeout! Honestly! I’m not kidding. It’s worth checking!
6. Flavourful water
To help get that fifth glass of water down, I recommend adding a slice of lemon (friends can bring it pre-sliced in a Tupperware) or a bit of cordial (I love elderflower). It doesn’t have to be much, but just enough to make plain water more palatable or remove the weird metallic taste that some medications give to all food and drink.
7. Eat at a table
My next tip has nothing to do with the actual food, but rather the way we eat our food. Our mental and physical attitude to it. If it is at all possible for you to get out of bed, get dressed, and eat sitting at a table, and then move around a little afterwards, you will improve not only your digestion but also the way you feel … emotionally… as well as physically. Nurses in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the Netherlands are encouraging patients to get dressed each day in normal clothes or INGA Wellbeing’s attractive patient clothing, eat their meals at a table and move around in order to improve their recovery.
8. Eat with others
When we’re not feeling well, we all have a tendency to isolate ourselves. It’s normal. We don’t want to bother others or be bothered by others. But in actual fact, once you are able to sit at a table, research shows that it is good for us to eat our meals with other people. Loneliness has been shown to be a contributory factor to early death. Eating a meal with other people not only punctuates the day, which can be particularly helpful when you are staring at the same four walls, but also helps us to relativise our own experiences and distract us for a little while from our own discomforts. So if there are two or more of you sharing a room, then suggest to your roommate that you eat together. If nothing else, you won’t notice quite how bland the food is!
I really hope some of these tips help you or your loved ones to feel a little better while in hospital. Please do let me know if you have any other ideas. We’d love to hear them.