Generally, being in a hospital isn't fun. That's mostly because if you are, it's likely you're dealing with some kind of terrible disease or trauma – and in many hospitals, the state of the food they serve patients isn't helping either. For some reason, when you're at your most vulnerable, you're presented with portion after portion of unidentifiable stews that start to congeal the moment you lay eyes on them.
A recent study by the Campaign for Better Food found that less than 30 percent of London hospitals serve their patients freshly cooked meals, while 77 percent offer fresh food to their staff. Yet earlier this week, pictures of amazing hospital meals in Japan went viral. So, is it just sick Brits who have to suffer through pulpy broccoli, and chicken that manages to be both greasy and dry? How do hospital meals come together in other countries?
To find out, we spoke to the people responsible for patients' meals in five different hospitals in five different European countries. Together, they serve everything between meals blended to a smoothie, to locally sourced organic burgers with feta and mango chutney.
Henk Hamminga, 60, Head of Nutrition at MC Slotervaart in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
VICE: Hi Henk, how long have you been running your hospital's catering?
Henk Hamminga: I started working here in 2014. At the time, the hospital wasn't doing very well financially, so I worked out we could save some money by not cooking in-house, but outsourcing it to a specialised catering company.
So how do you make sure it's fresh when it's delivered to your patients?
The catering company cooks the food and delivers it to the hospital daily. We reheat the packaged meals really slowly in special carts so that it doesn't get too mushy and tasteless, and keeps its normal texture.
Is everybody served the same meal?
No, we always offer two different menus, which change daily. We also try to cater for as many dietary needs as we can – we always offer both halal and vegetarian options. And every meal comes with a side salad and some dessert.
Do you eat it yourself?
Yes, I've tasted every single meal that we serve our patients and, honestly, they generally taste quite nice. But for our patients who have trouble swallowing, we blend everything into a sort of smoothie. You can imagine those aren't very tasty.
– Alex Krancher
Marco Romano, 33, Head Chef at the Triemli Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland
VICE: How much choice do you offer patients?
Marco Romano: Most patients can choose between five different menus – a selection of classic Swiss dishes, a vegetarian menu, light snacks and menus of finely chopped and mashed foods. The selection changes every day, and we're very flexible about people mixing and matching between the options. Patients can also order extra vegetables for free, because it would be unfair to charge more when they try to eat better.
How does your budget influence the culinary choices you make?
Currently, all the local meat we serve is organic, but I think that'll change soon, because we're looking at financial cuts. For three meals, the average amount we spend per patient per day is €14 [£12.60]. Additionally, special foods, such as milk for babies born with digestive problems, can get very expensive – up to €5 a portion.
Of all the dishes you serve, what's your favourite?
I love creating innovative, modern meals, but that doesn't always go down well with our patients. Most of them are elderly, and they tend to prefer traditional cuisine instead of my burger with feta and mango chutney, for example.
It's not just about the food, though. We take a lot of pride in the meals we prepare, so it's very important for me that we always make sure the food looks nice, too. You should check out the Instagram account I created to show off our special creations.
Do you have particularly picky patients?
No – some complain that meals are too salty, but I think that's more down to their medication affecting their taste.
- Kamil Biedermann
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Ramona Bratu, 47, Head Chef at the University Hospital Bucharest, Romania
VICE: Hi Ramona, what's the menu like at your hospital?
Ramona Bratu: The options change daily and they depend on the dietary needs of each patient. Before we decide on the menus, both a treating physician and a dietician will recommend what each patient's meal should contain. At the moment, we cater for around 17 categories of diets across about a thousand patients.
How much do you spend on each patient?
It depends on their individual needs. We spend about €2 per meal on patients with no specific dietary requirements, and around €3 per meal for diabetics and expectant mothers. Meals for patients undergoing dialysis cost about €1.50, and they only eat once a day.
So what kind of feedback are you getting on your work?
That's hard to say, but the most requested dish is the bean paste with minced meat croquettes. Our patients also seem to love the soufflés, especially the cheese soufflé. On the whole, people seem pretty pleased.
There must be something people don't like, though?
Well, heart disease patients are not allowed any salt. I could prepare the greatest meal in the world, but without salt they'll still hate it.
– Răzvan Filip
Linda Hagdahl, 40, Dietery Physician at Södersjukhuset in Stockholm, Sweden
VICE: What dishes do your patients love most?
Linda Hagdahl: The classics, like meatballs and mashed potatoes – food that's pretty easy to eat, and not too chewy. Off the children's menu, our tacos, pancakes and lasagna seem to be the most popular.
Our food is provided by an external catering service, so when it arrives we try to make sure it looks as appetising as possible, but that's harder with some meals than others.
How do you create your menus?
Södersjukhuset is an emergency hospital, so the average patient stays here for only three to four days. That means we don't have as many tailored options as other hospitals. For each meal of the day, we offer two choices – and an extra option for anyone with special requirements, like allergies. With so few options for an entire hospital, it's hard to create dishes that suit the wide variety of ages, cultural backgrounds and medical conditions. But we're currently building a new, bigger kitchen, where we plan to prepare a base menu of 12 different dishes.
What else could you do to make the food better?
Stockholm's county council has promised to invest more money in hospital meals. Over the next five years, we'll be focusing on creating better meals, with more ingredients that are locally produced and organic, for example.
What is the most common complaint you get?
That the food isn't warm enough – that's definitely a bit of a problem with our current reheating system. Thankfully, that should all change when the new kitchen is ready.
– Hampus Andersson
Dr. Sonja Radakovic, 52, Nutritionist at the Belgrade Military Clinic, Serbia
VICE: How hard is it to cater to so many different people and tastes?
Dr. Sonja Radakovic: It's pretty challenging. As every patient is prescribed a specific diet, we create around 20 different specialised menus, and send out around 1,000 meals a day.
How do you ensure the quality of the meals?
It's about being as prepared as possible. All our annual food budgets are allocated in advance, based on the number of patients we expect to treat. So we always know where we stand, and we don't have to sacrifice the quantity or quality.
What are your patients' main complaints?
We did some research among patients, and 90 percent of them said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of our food. Obviously, you can't please everyone. In Serbia, people rarely eat well – they prefer greasy, fried and salty foods, with a lot of processed meat and as little fruit and vegetables as humanly possible. We try to offer our patients healthier options.
Do you take it personally when patients are unhappy?
Not really, because there are a lot of factors that could be contributing to them not liking our food. Research has shown that patients in general eat less while hospitalised – the nature of their medication and the physical and mental effects of their conditions can all lead to a severe loss of appetite. We try to counter that by offering a diverse range of meals. Really, my number one job is to make sure that the meals we serve contribute to a patient's recovery.
– Jovana Netkovic