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Food for thought: are we too scared to eat with the people we support?

Jim Thomas Programme Head Workforce Innovation Skills for Care

“It’s coming into work to the smell of freshly baked bread in the morning that made the biggest difference to our whole approach to food and what food meant to the people we support.”

This observation, from a Skills for Care project, on the impact of teaching cookery skills to support workers always comes back to me when I think about the importance of nutrition and the positive physical and emotional benefits that come from eating and drinking well.

This is why it’s incredibly frustrating that we seem to pay so little attention to the cookery skills of our workforce. After all a support worker who has not progressed beyond Rice Krispies and beans on toast is going to find it hard to create balanced meal plans for people they support, and recognise the impact a poor diet might have on someone’s health.

This makes me wonder if we pay enough attention in social care to the role that food can have on physical and mental health. If it was seen as a normal part of the shift for workers to prepare food and eat with the people they support, we might find there are all kinds of benefits we hadn’t expected. Not only will it improve the food on offer, it could help to break down barriers between workers and the people they support, helping them to bond over a shared passion for food and learn from each other’s different tastes.

Of course I could be imagining that this isn’t common practice. Perhaps social care workers and the people they support do eat and drink together regularly. I’m sure that when colleagues, families and people with support needs do share a meal we learn to see each other as more than a condition, a set of symptoms, or a role type. However, I wonder at the same time if our need to manage risk, protect people from harm and ensure that we are seen at all times to be ‘professional’ could be preventing us from sufficiently valuing the positive impact that simply sitting and having a meal with the people we support could have for all of us.

From a workforce development perspective do we routinely assess food-preparation skills as part of the interview process for care and support roles? Do we ensure that our workforce understands how different medications may necessitate adjustments to people’s diets? Would we see the value in teaching our workforce food-preparation skills as part of induction? Is there a place for learning not only about the physical impacts of good nutrition but the emotional impacts as well?

Should all of our managers and directors regularly share mealtimes with the people their organisations and staff are supporting as a way of getting to know and understand their concerns about the support they are getting? If our workforce did this would it be viewed positively by commissioners and regulators?

The more I think about food, nutrition, and health and wellbeing the more I wonder if something that is a big part of society is undervalued in social care support? After all for my 93-year-old mother-in-law one of the best parts of every day is secretly sharing a couple of pieces of Chocolate Orange with her youngest great-grandson. A case of cross-generational companionship which has positive impacts for both of them.




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