“Why don’t you come to the Conquest one afternoon to sample some food?”
I must admit, it was probably not the most enticing invitation I had ever received.
It would be fair to say that hospital food doesn’t have the best reputation and, after all, no one really chooses to dine in a ward out of choice.
But hospital food in East Sussex has undergone somewhat of a revolution over the last couple of years.
And if you haven’t been an inpatient at your local hospital for a while, then you are in for a surprise.
Gone are the days of bulk cooking, limited choice and a generally pretty inflexible service.
Now a comprehensive seasonal menu boasts more than 32 dishes, hot meals individually cooked to order, with more choices and additional menus for those on special diets.
East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust employs 74 people in its catering team, including chefs, catering assistants, washer-uppers and porters, working across the four hospitals run by the Trust - the Conquest Hospital in Hastings, Eastbourne’s DGH, Bexhill Hospital and the Rye, Winchelsea and District Memorial Hospital.
The catering department in the Conquest is located at the top of the building.
Today I am meeting Michelle Clements, general manager of facilities services, and Linda Griffiths, catering operations manager for Hastings, Eastbourne, Rye and Bexhill, to find out more about how and why the changes came about.
Linda said: “We used to offer only two hot mains, a salad or a sandwich and a limited supper menu.”
Michelle said: “In the past we were criticised for providing limited choice.
“Because it was a bulk service, there was not a lot of flexibility.”
She added: “There was always the stigma of hospital food, so we tried to improve our service by normalising the patients’ experience by offering different dishes and for different stages in their experience.”
In early 2014, the Trust developed a working partnership with a company called Steamplicity, which helped them to design a menu to better reflect the needs of patients.
The company provides the trust with its main meals and introduced the team to a new way of cooking - by steam pressure.
The new scheme was rolled out at the DGH first, with the Conquest following suit a couple of weeks later.
Linda said: “It was completely different to what we did before.
“There are a lot of other companies that do it, but those are frozen offerings whereas this is chilled and allows us to provide fresh vegetables to our patients.”
She added: “There was a lot involved. We did not do it lightly.”
Inpatients are presented with menus at ward level and make their choices from the abundance of hot meals, salads, puddings and light bites on offer.
The choices are sent down to the catering department and the individual meals are selected from the shelves of the hospitals’ streamlined industrial refrigerator.
The meals are loaded into large portable yellow chilled insultated trollies before they are transported up to the correct ward.
The plated meals are unloaded and cooked at ward level in microwave unit, according to the instructions on the packet.
Producing a dish of salmon with hollandaise sauce, Linda says: “It’s got all the ingredients on here and the ward has all this information too.
“It’s got a produced on and use by date and this number is the number you put into the microwave.
“It’s not minutes, it’s a programme on the microwave that we have specifically for this service.”
Michelle added: “Community hospitals (Bexhill and Rye) have a slightly different menu because patients are in there longer.
“They are cooked on site and they have set mealtimes there and they have the choice to go to the dining room to eat.”
Once each meal has been cooked, an electronic thermometer is placed in the centre of the dish, to ensure it has reached the correct temperature.
If it hasn’t, the meal is placed back into the steamer for 30 seconds.
If it still hasn’t reached the required temperature after this second blast, the food is thrown out.
Staff keep strict records when it comes to mealtimes, taking down the temperature of every dish delivered to every patient.
This information is held by the hospitals for six months.
The hospitals’ menu is revised twice a year, following consultation with patients and Healthwatch East Sussex, a local watchdog for health and care services in East Sussex.
The current autumn and winter menu came out in October.
Cottage pie, salmon and roast dinners are proving particularly popular this season, Linda tells me.
So when she offers to cook up a couple of dishes, it would be rude not to sample the Conquest’s most popular offerings.
After emerging from the steamer, the three dishes get the thermometer treatment before they are laid out on the table.
The chicken and salmon were beautifully tender, while the cottage pie is better than anything I could have attempted myself at home.
As well as being pretty delicious, this new way of cooking has also had a huge impact on the amount of food which goes to waste.
In the days of bulk cooking, food wastage at the hospitals used to stand at between ten and 12 per cent.
Thanks to steam cooking individual meals to order, this figure has dropped to just one-and-a-half per cent.
The menu includes options for those with special dietary requirements, including patients on a gluten free or high protein diet.
But if you find you cannot eat anything on the menu, or you require a kosher or halal meal, then the catering team will ensure that your needs are met.
Michelle said: “We have a specialist diet chef on all sites to cater for any patients who cannot have anything from the menu.”
Michelle and her team have also produced menus specially for patients who require food which can be easily eaten with the fingers, including those with dementia, and a menu consisting of softer and mashed foods, which are particularly important to those recovering from strokes.
Michelle said: “We have patients with dementia who may just want to eat little and often, so we have now also got a finger food menu for patients so we can encourage them to eat.
“If people require finger menus, we can supply these throughout the day for them.
“We have also worked closely with a company called Mrs Gill’s Kitchen to develop a texture modified menu, which has a selection of meals in different categories - pureed meals, pre mashed and fork mashed.
“Our texture modified menus are for patients who may have swallowing difficultities.”
Different levels of solidity can be provided for different stages of the patient’s recovery.
The catering team sources local produce for its meals wherever possible.
The team works particularly closely with J R Wholesale of Hailsham, and Linda and is currently working with the business on bringing fruit pots, filled with bite-sized portions of apples, pears and grapes, to patients as a healthier dessert option.
I would imagine very few people choose to spend their Christmas in hospital, but on Sunday Michelle, Linda and the team will be doing their best to ensure that the seasonal spirit finds its way to the wards.
Christmas dinners with all the trimmings will be provided to 300 patients at the Conquest, 300 at the DGH, 54 at Bexhill and 18 at Rye, complete with festive crackers.
Patients will be treated to Danish pastries for breakfast and mince pies in the afternoon.
And of course the catering team’s responsibility also extends to feeding the hospital staff too.
At the Conquest Hospital alone, 120 members of staff are catered for each day.
And like the patients, they have their favourites.
Linda said: “They love their carvery on a Thursday.
“Friday they have got to have breaded fish and chips.
“After that they like to have an assortment of things and they like when we do theme days, which can be different countries or for events like Halloween.”
More money is being ploughed into the catering department to further improve the dining experience for patients and staff alike.
All the hot beverage machines on all the wards at the Conquest have recently been replaced, with the hotplates in the staff canteen to follow shortly.
The East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust carries out regular patient satisfaction surveys, with the catering team gaining no less then 96 per cent.
But despite these glowing reviews, Michelle says her team will not stop striving to provide the very best for patients.
She said: “We have got a good team.
“We are always looking to improve the services we provide.
“We never become complacent, we are always asking patients what they would like to see.”