Interview

How Hospital Food in Singapore Is Prepared

In UK, a 22 year-old patient died because he wasn’t given sufficient water in the hospital. The UK hospital food is so bad that more than 30 million hospital meals are left uneaten each year and 67% of the hospital staff won’t eat the food they serve their patients (source). In USA, however, efforts are made to improve the quality of hospital food, such as farming on the hospital’s rooftop to provide fresh ingredients. Inspired by these articles, we want to find out about hospital food in Singapore: are our hospitals providing the best nutrition for the convalescents? Hospital food has to be nutritious (for patients’ swift recovery) and delicious because sick people usually don’t have a good appetite therefore hospital food has to be tasty to entice them to eat. Are our hospitals giving nutritious and tasty food?

Out of the seven hospitals we contacted–Alexandra Hospital, Changi General Hospital, National University Hospital (NUH), Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Singapore General Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital–three rejected our request to visit the hospitals without stating any reasons, three completely ignored us and only NUH acceded to our request and brought us on a tour on how the meals are prepared.


Carrot Cake from NUH Hospital Food

NUH outsources the preparation of meals to a global company, Sodexo, because, as Jean Chang, Assistant Director of Environmental Services, said it, the food should be left to the experts so that the hospital can concentrate on treating the patients. As a global organization, Sodexo has the resources to scout for fresh ingredients from Singapore and the region. The ingredients are not only safe, certified by AVA, they also abide to ethical laws of not endangering any species. Sodexo also works very closely with NUH dietitians to ensure that the meals are balanced in terms of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, etc.


Wednesday Menu from Normal Diet. Reproduced with Permission from NUH and Sodexo.

In addition to the three “No”s of NUH hospital food (no MSG, no coconut milk and no saturated oil), the menu is split into four main groups: normal meal; meals for diabetics; for two types of meals for people with kidney problems because these are the most common illnesses for hospitalization. Within the four main groups of menu, there are more categories such halal food, western, halal vegetarian, Chinese, and Chinese vegetarian, accumulating to 34 pages of menu. Some storybooks are shorter than the menu. The menu changes daily for a week and then repeats but since an average stay in the hospital is six days, a patient probably and hopefully won’t get to eat the same food twice. There are also special festive menus such as turkey for Christmas.


Low Salt and Low Cholesterol Wednesday Menu for Diabetics. Reproduced with Permission from NUH and Sodexo.

Orders are taken daily and the patient can choose any category of food regardless of race. However, if a patient is naughty and decide to order something she or he shouldn’t eat, good luck trying. Everything is computerized. Upon hospitalization, what a patient cannot eat has already been keyed in into the computer.

I was very fortunate to be taken on a tour of the spotless NUH kitchen. Upon entering, everyone has to wear hairnet, gloves, mask, and safety boots. I’m sure I looked sexy in them. The kitchen is similar to a one-way production line in a factory: the raw ingredients enter at the door, where the fridge is. Vegetables are delivered daily in the morning and meat twice or thrice a day depending on the demand. And next to the fridge are four rows of kitchen so that the halal and non-halal food don’t mix. The food is, of course, cooked in such a way that no or minimal nutrients are lost. And after cooking, there is a group of people to pack the meals. A food service dietitian or dietary assistant stands at the end of the packing line to check each and every 850 meals to ensure no mistakes are made. The food is then placed on a special tray, which is placed in a special trolley from a technology from France. What is so special about the trolley is that it keeps one side of the tray hot at above 60 degrees and the the other side of the same tray chill at below 8 degrees (for milk, fruits and desserts). The heat and cold can be maintained at their respective temperatures up to two hours. One tray, two temperatures!


Grilled Dory with Yogurt Parsley Sauce, Zucchini Parmesan, Whole Meal Roll, and Mixed Vegetable Soup – From Western Normal Menu

The photos of the food illustrate the portions you should eat in a day (about 1800-2000 calories). If you’re eating healthily on your own, this is a sample: breakfast (a sandwich or porridge or even mee siam), lunch at cai-fan stall (a bowl of rice with a serving of meat and two servings of vegetables and fruits), a teatime snack (sandwich), dinner (same as lunch), and a supper snack (a cup of milo). I cheekily asked, “Why do hospitals always serve Milo and biscuit for tea-time snacks?”


Lady-fingers Stir-fried with Onions, Green Peas Subzi, Angel Luffa Soup from Vegetarian Halal Normal Menu

NUH Chief Dietitian Lim Su Lin answered that the snacks are just to pack sufficient calories in patients who don’t have appetite for food and to ensure that they have enough fluids, so any snacks will do. In fact, NUH serves sandwiches, green bean soup, red bean soup, tea, coffee, and even Horlicks!


Chicken Korma, Curry Vegetable and Angel Luffa Soup from Malay Normal Set

According to Lim, 30% of the patients are malnourished on admission partly because of misinformation. For instance, people who suffer from kidney problems mistakenly believe that they should stay away from proteins, and hence they suffer from malnutrition. For these malnourished patients and women after parturition, the daily calories are increased to 2300-2500, which is about half the calories I have for each food tasting.


Double-boiled Fish Soup with Papaya, Stir-Fried Pork with Ginger; Mushrooms & Carrots; Vegetables; Carrot Cake, Cut Fruits, Yogurt – Confinement Menu (Non-Halal)

In terms of hygiene and proper healthcare towards patients, NUH exceeds my expectation by maybe 4000%. But what about the taste? Taking into consideration that the food is without MSG, it was ok. Although low-fat milk is used as a substitute for coconut milk, the curries were pleasant, especially ladyfingers from the halal vegetarian menu that was assam-sourish, and hence appetizing. The meat, in general, was a little tough but that is because they have to ensure that meat is cooked thoroughly. The rice could be softer with more moisture and the fish could have been less limp. While the textures could be improved, the taste was decent. I do wish that I had tried something from the low fat, low salt menu, a litmus test of the savoriness of the food.

PS: Thank you to the kind people at Sodexo and NUH for taking their time out to show me their kitchen. Special thanks to Michelle for organizing and coordinating our schedules.

Categories: Interview

21 replies »

  1. From personal experience, the worst hospital food comes from NUH, and the best from TTSH. I once had broccoli for 5 days 2 meals a day (Chinese meal) in NUH I swore off that vile vegetable after that memorable (not!) hospital stay. They recycle and repeat the same vegetable for days! Checked the Malay meal & it was the same vegetable. Plus they use too much cornstarch to thicken all the sauces. Just curious, why were you conducting this check on hospital food?

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    • We have no basis of comparison of hospital food since TTSH didn’t reply us. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the taste of hospital food. (We hope you’re well?)

      As for broccoli, we took another look at NUH’s menu (luckily we haven’t thrown away the menu) and there isn’t any broccoli in it. Do you mean cauliflower? On Mondays, Weds, Saturdays and Sundays, there isn’t cauliflower. On Tuesday, a vegetarian has to endure cauliflower twice but done in different style: lunch set has cauliflower masala and for dinner, there is Gobhi Manchurian (baked cauliflower in gravy). On Thur, Western menu has sauteed cauliflower for lunch, and vegetarians have Gobhi Manchurian for dinner. On friday dinner, for western, it’s cauliflower and carrots.

      As you see, if you don’t choose the Vegetarian menu, you can avoid cauliflower. And even if you’re vegetarian, cauliflower only comes up on Tue and Thur. Besides, the cooking style and sauces for cauliflower do change daily. Perhaps you chose the western menu for both Thur and Fri? But on Thur lunch, it’s sauteed and for Fri dinner (more than 24 hours apart), it’s cauliflower with carrots.

      Thanks for bringing this example up. It really made us scrutinize the menu and pick an example to make this entry clearer.

      We are not conducting a check on hospital food lah. We have no right to check. We did this article out of a civic mindedness, to raise awareness on the standard of hospital food and to try to champion for better hospital food; what Jamie Oliver do to schools, we want to do to hospitals. If you’ve been following us, you’d know that our blog is different from others in the sense that we are more socially and politically aware. For instance, although bloggers were invited to Bake a Singapore, a grassroots event to raise bring Singaporeans and new citizens together, (I think) we’re the only one to cover it. None of the other bloggers went down. Even our reviews (such as the one on Saveur) has a political and social angle to it.

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      • Nope, it’s really broccoli, the green large flower head of the species Brassica oleracea, and I’m positively sure I had it for consecutive meals over several days. Different cooking style it may be but it’s still broccoli for goodness sake and they all are non-palatable. Anyhow, thanks for clarifying.

        Why don’t you do a feature of a series of airplane food from different airlines? It’ll
        be much more interesting than hospital food… I’m sure it’ll appeal to your readers too.

        And thanks for asking. Yup, I’m alive and kicking now. No thanks to br*@#?!

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  2. UK hospital food is not only lousy, it is also very skinny. To
    rub it in your are charged a mighty big bomb for it, if you are
    a foreigner. You would regret it if you are warded for you
    probably have to spend more than your trip on hospital bills!
    You can believe that.

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  3. Hm. I wonder do they do cook fresh or cook chilled? Cook chilled the food is already cooked but after that blast chilled and retherm again prior serving the food. I thought so since the number of meals are so many.

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  4. thank u!!! i think the menu is good!! but i think the menu u showed above is for paying class only.i don’t think subsidized patients have such priveledge.

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