I will never forget my first hospital meal. Actually, hospital is not the best description, it was a maternity home in a small New Zealand town. I was transferred back there following the birth of my first child at the larger regional hospital. My labour had been long and hard and by dinner time I was ravenous! The chicken roast dinner was delicious, the chicken moist and tender, the potatoes crispy and golden on the outside, fluffy on the inside, the vegetables cooked to perfection. I savoured every mouthful.
The meals at the home were cooked on site and this explained why they arrived piping hot, served on plates rather than in foil containers. I also believe the food was the reason why so many mothers became 'overstayers'! Many had to be persuaded by the midwives that it was now time to take baby home.
I did not have another hospital meal for 13 years. I returned home within hours of my second birth, following a smooth, easy delivery (a drug free, natural birth). My next two children were born at home and I was planning the same for baby number 5 when we found out, it was 5 and 6 - twins!
At 38 weeks pregnant I found out that both girls were in the breech position and unlikely to turn, so a c-section was booked. I went into the hospital, completed all the paperwork and returned to town to finish my Christmas shopping. Then what I thought only happened in the movies, happened to me, my waters broke! Not in a gush thankfully, more of a trickle but as I stood at the sales counter of a bookstore completing my purchase, I was well aware of what was happening and I made a hasty exit. I stayed cool, calm and collected as I rang my husband at work (the children were at a friend's house) and requested that he come and rescue me from my predicament on the main street! We went to the hospital and having already booked in, this was no drama. Everything went so smoothly, my obstetrician was on duty, the theatre prepared and a private room available. The care was professional and I had absolutely no fears, I was in good hands. My beautiful girls were born at 5.20pm, two minutes apart. They were exceptionally healthy, even though they were small, weighing in at 5ibs and 5ibs 3oz respectively. They did not need any intervention or time in the special care baby unit.
By the following day I was famished and looking forward to my first meal. Chicken was on the menu, would it measure up to the chicken dinner at the maternity home all those years ago? I was a little apprehensive, it was a year since we had radically overhauled our diet and put into action the principles of 'The Maker's Diet'. I was certain that our new additive free diet was the reason why I had experienced a trouble free pregnancy and given birth to such healthy twin girls. Why change now? I didn't expect organic food to be on the menu but on my menu form in the section for special dietary requirements I wrote,' no meals with artificial colours, flavours or preservatives'. I did not think this to be unusual, after all, hospitals cater for special diets all the time and many people have adverse reactions to certain additives.
The meal arrived but it was in a different class to the maternity home's chicken dinner. A piece of chicken breast, overcooked, dry and stringy and a serving of white rice. There was no sauce which would have disguised the overcooked chicken, obviously, it must have contained additives, so none accompanied my chicken. It was virtually inedible and after a few mouthfuls I could eat no more. I devoured the banana for dessert... no pudding for me that evening!
At breakfast, cereal and yoghurt arrived. I checked the label and yes, it contained preservatives!
There was no toast so I guessed the bread must have not been preservative free. For lunch, fruit and my first pile of rice cakes, I didn't realize it then but I was going to be well acquainted with rice cakes during my stay!
For dinner, another pile of rice cakes! The midwife on duty couldn't quite believe what I had been served and asked what kind of special diet I was on. I think she was quite surprised that I had only asked for meals free from artificial additives. It doesn't say much for the food does it she remarked. Another midwife was less sympathetic and told me I should have brought my own food in. This had not been on my to do list for hospital and with my unexpected admittance I didn't even have a night gown or a toothbrush, they were packed in my bag at home! I did not expect my husband to cook meals to bring in but I was very grateful when he thought to bring me from home, our muesli and extra fruit.
By day three of my stay the leaning tower of rice cakes on my bedside cabinet was growing ever taller and I had not yet eaten one substantial meal. I was starting to feel weak and the situation was affecting me emotionally as the staff did not know how to respond to my dilemma. When yet another pile of rice cakes arrived, I could take it no more and requested to be discharged. Why did I want to go home so soon the midwives asked and my reply was easy ' I need to eat and I need some healthy food!'
It was true, the hospital which prided itself as a promoter of health, where smoking was banned even in the grounds and did provide excellent medical care of the highest standard could not provide food to its patients free of additives, unless they were prepared to have rice cakes at every meal!
The food was cooked off-site by an outside contractor and transported daily to the hospital. I wonder how many 'food miles' they must accumulate? In hindsight, I should have asked to speak with the dietitian and quizzed her on the additive laden food and the poor/no alternative that I was offered, but I was too focused on caring for my newborn twins to even think of this.
Coming home with my girls was wonderful and those early weeks were blissful, yes, I was tired and I had lost a lot of weight (did my three days of meagre food in hospital contribute to this I wonder?) but I felt utterly blessed and the joy they brought into our lives as a family was immeasurable. For the first ten days, the wonderful ladies from my church delivered meals, home cooked, nourishing, tasty dishes such as quiches and vegetable bakes. They do this for all mothers, it is so well coordinated and they even cater for special dietary needs!
As publicity concerning health issues and the link between children's health and artificial additives in food is being given greater exposure in the media, I wonder when someone will address the type of food that is served to patients in hospitals - the health providers in our nation. I do believe that they should be leading the way.
Schools have started to wake up to what they serve in their canteens and many a school canteen menu has been overhauled. Schools that have introduced these changes are seeing improvements in the behaviour and concentration of their students. Jamie Oliver took it upon himself to improve the food served in schools across the UK, highlighted in his 'School Dinners' TV programmes, taking his quest to the highest level of government.
I'm not sure if anyone has taken on the health system yet. Perhaps this would make another interesting challenge for Jamie Oliver! It would make for great viewing! I somehow can't see the larger public hospitals having vegetable gardens or even the on-site kitchens reinstated with teams of chefs and their assistants taking the freshest of produce and turning it into wholesome, nourishing fare for patients but one day in the near future I would love to hear that hospitals are refusing to offer contracts to catering services that use products containing artificial ingredients and that fresh produce is being delivered by local growers to their local hospital. That they stipulate that the bread that arrives at the kitchen to be toasted for breakfasts is free from preservatives. So many small changes that could make a big difference! Healthy hospital food? Have you experienced this or did you actually think to ask if the food was free from additives? It would be interesting to know how widespread the problem actually is.
In the meantime, I am thankful I have not needed to go into hospital, that my family is healthy and able to enjoy the best food... at home of course!