The way to patients' hearts is through their stomachs

Joan in the kitchen at Leckhampton

Joan Smith is Head Chef at our Leckhampton Court Hospice, where she's been preparing meals for patients, families, volunteers and staff for nearly five years. Here, we get to know Joan, and she outlines how the team plan and prepare meals at the hospice to make a real difference to people being cared for.

When I first came to Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice, I was a bit apprehensive as I had never worked in a hospice before. I was not sure what to expect and it was really eye-opening – the level of care offered here is unlike anything I have ever seen.

I love cooking, and when patients are able to eat food again and enjoy it, this makes such a difference to them and their families. Seeing someone get their appetite back is an amazing feeling.

A day in Joan's kitchen

On a typical day, I arrive at 7am and prepare patients’ breakfasts, which are served at 8am and can include anything from porridge, toast or cereal to a full cooked breakfast.

I then start to get ready for lunch and plan the evening meal. My shift usually ends at 3pm, and another chef joins me at 1.30pm to do the evening shift until 7pm.

It is not like any other kitchen job. We really have the time to take care over what we are preparing. We have time to talk with patients about what they would like and to understand their dietary requirements. We offer a really personal service.

The most rewarding part of my job is speaking with patients and getting things right for them. We are not just about cooking and plating up; we are preparing home-cooked food especially for people based on their individual needs.

Tailored menus

Very often, people who come into the hospice have been in hospital and they are a little worried about what the food will be like here or what our meal routine will be, but I do my best to reassure them. If patients have to miss a meal because they're asleep or have just had their medication, we will come back an hour or so later and make them their meal then.

The team receives lots of lovely feedback – from patients themselves, from their family and friends, or via nursing staff. Sometimes when we speak to patients they’ll tell us: "I haven't eaten this much in ages", family members will say how pleased they are to see their loved one eating again, or a nurse might come and mention that a patient they’re caring for said their soup was the best they’d ever had. To get feedback like that is hugely rewarding.

Working with patients and families, our kitchen team tailors meals to suit patients.

We have a menu for the week – for example, today we have celeriac and butterbean soup, lamb stew or gammon salad, but we will tailor the menu to each individual patients' needs. Some patients can only eat liquidised foods, for example, or maybe need soft foods or extra sauce to make it more palatable, and we will cater for each of those needs.

We always dress our meals with a garnish to give it a bit of colour to make it look more appealing too. It's the little personal touches that help make a big difference.

We want the hospice to be a home from home so we are passionate about offering proper home-cooked food. We offer soups, a full menu every day, puddings, or something lighter like sandwiches, jacket potatoes or salad. We have an afternoon tea trolley that goes around the hospice at 3pm offering homemade cakes too. Today we have jam tarts and yesterday we had fruit cake.

Sometimes a patient might have a craving for a particular food. One day, a patient really fancied some canned fruit so we popped out to get this for them. If a patient requests something and we don’t have it, we will get it.

All occasions catered for with care

My favourite meals to prepare are soups, as they are different every day, plus my honey roast gammon. I also really enjoy creating food using locally sourced produce and donated items.

In the autumn, for instance, we have loads of apples from the orchard in the hospice and we love using them in our meals. All the patients comment on how they can really taste the difference when we use locally grown ingredients.

I also love creating special meals for special occasions. Over the Wimbledon weekend, we offered a menu with scones, strawberries and cream, and a bottle of prosecco. We make pancakes on Pancake Day; savoury ones, and cherry and ice-cream. On Good Friday, we bake Hot Cross Buns and, at Christmas, we offer a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, and we have mince pies and Christmas cake on offer.

If I hear that a patient has a birthday or a special occasion I will always try and bake them a homemade cake too.

A job that's about people

A lot of the people I meet here have misconceptions of what a hospice will be like. People always ask me if the hospice is full of dying people or say it must be really hard working here, but it's not like that! It’s not what you think when you come here.

We give the best possible care we can and some people go home to enjoy more time with their families. It is not about death in a hospice; it is about life. We focus on people, not their illness or condition.

Sue Ryder is a charity and our hospice must raise the funds to cover the majority of the £3m it costs to keep our care and services running each year.

This can’t be done without the support of the very community the hospice is there for, so I'd like to give the hospice's supporters a message: Without your support we would not be able to do what we do and go the extra mile to give such personal care. Until you have had someone cared for here you don’t know what the level of care is like, and it is your fundraising that helps make that happen.

Joan Smith

Head Chef - Leckhampton Court Hospice

Joan Smith