An NHS Chef’s Guide to Budget-Friendly, Nutritious, and Delicious Meals

Matt Willis, Co-Head Chef at Clacton Hospital, NHS Property Services (NHSPS) (www.property.nhs.uk) shares insight around the challenges of hospital catering, and how best to manage budgets while cooking delicious and nutritious meals for staff and patients.

Catering for hospitals comes with its challenges. It is often a balancing act between having nutritious, healthy meals, while also making sure they are within budget and not wasted. And most importantly, the meals must be enjoyable for patients and staff.

Having a seasonal menu
A big part of saving money and having a tasty menu is making sure meals are seasonal, freshly made and locally sourced. The patient menu is set by dietitians, so it must be adhered to for patients to get the nutrition they need. One way of ensuring this is cooking food from scratch. This can make a huge improvement to the quality of food. In our hospital, for example, making food from scratch allows us to significantly reduce salt out of the diets and ensuring that there are no pre-made or pre-packaged foods in every meal.

Using local suppliers is important, as the produce is fresh, and it is a more sustainable way of picking up ingredients needed for the daily menu. It is also great for altering the menu on the day – whether that is down to weather changes, or we have had requests to change up the menu. Ultimately, it is most important to provide people with the food they want. By going local, this can be done in a budget-friendly and sustainable way.

Catering for every need
It is important to know who you are cooking for. With so many patients and staff, catering for all comes with challenges – for example, there are 14 official allergens we need to consider. However, it also encourages creativity and to think more about what people want to and can eat. For example, providing an alternative menu is helpful, such as kosher, allergen-free, or needing softer foods. Ultimately, it is important to keep patients happy.

Reducing food waste
Another important part of catering and sticking within budget is reducing food waste. In a hospital, if there are two portions left over on a counter, it cannot be saved for later and unfortunately it goes to waste. To prevent waste, we must consider portion control. This can be challenging as patients need a nutrient rich diet and to feel full for a sustained period of time. Where possible, always aim to prepare smaller portions, and if people are still hungry, recommend a snack like fruit or something to keep them going. In our hospital, I encourage the team to manage portion control – it is a crucial part of our training.

Leftovers can encourage you to be fun, creative and make simple foods delicious. Reducing food waste will also have a positive knock-on effect on budget, meaning that money won’t be wasted and can be continued to be spent on getting the best produce.

My top tips to reduce food waste and budget are:
• Make a fish pie with leftover fish, with a quick sauce and mash potato ready for next day lunch service.
• I often put lamb in the slow cooker – if there is any leftover it works well in a lamb salad wrap.
• Leftover spaghetti Bolognese works a treat as a topping for jacket potatoes, or chili con carne! I also put it over chips sprinkled with cheese on top under the grill.

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