Accessing gluten free food in hospital
If you have coeliac disease and need to go into hospital, you must tell hospital staff that you need a gluten free diet. Knowledge and understanding of gluten free can vary between hospitals, but there are mandatory food standards in place across the UK that ensure you must be catered for. The key is to speak up for yourself and always check with staff, or have a family member, friend or caregiver check for you.
Read on for our top tips and tools to help you explain your needs to hospital staff. You can also make use of member benefits during your hospital stay, including our Helpline and Food and Drink Information. We’re always here for you.
Unplanned stays in hospital
Unplanned stays in hospital are stressful enough without worrying about your diet. But unfortunately, not all staff will understand what gluten free means. Even well-meaning staff may accidentally get it wrong, so don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself:
- When you’re choosing what to eat from the menu, ask the ward housekeeper which options are suitable for a gluten free diet. Some hospitals highlight which meals are gluten free and may even have a separate gluten free menu, but still ask about cross contamination.
- Ask to see a dietitian when you are first admitted to hospital, as it is often the dietitian who will order a meal for you.
- If you are unsure if your meal is okay for you to eat, check again with the ward housekeeper or a member of nursing staff. If in doubt, don’t assume something is suitable for your gluten free diet.
- Where possible, ask a family member, friend or caregiver to bring some of our resources in to share with staff: a gluten free checklist, kitchen poster, template letter.
Planned stays in hospital
If your stay in hospital is planned, it should be easier to be prepared. Speak to the ward sister or hospital dietitian ahead of time so they know that you need a gluten free diet. Don’t be worried about ‘making a fuss’, you need
gluten free food to stay well and advance notice gives the catering team time to order in gluten free foods like bread and crackers if they don't usually have them. To make sure that your stay goes smoothly, here are a few questions to ask beforehand:
- Do I need to see the hospital dietitian to make sure I can get meals and snacks that I can eat?
- Does the hospital have a gluten free menu?
- Are gluten free snacks available?
Things to pack in your hospital bag:
- Coeliac UK’s Food and Drink Guide, or make sure you’ve downloaded our Live Well Gluten Free app – it may come in handy if you or the hospital staff need to check any foods.
- A selection of your favourite GF snacks – like breadsticks, biscuits and crackers, just in case you need them.
- Our tools to help staff know you’re gluten free – a gluten free checklist, kitchen poster, template letter.
We have produced a template letter for you to edit to your needs and send to the hospital, or use as a guide for your phone conversations with staff. On the downloadable document, you can also include any additional dietary requirements, such as lactose intolerance, kosher, halal, etc. As hospital guidance differs according to where you live, we have created letters for all four devolved nations – download them at the bottom of the page.
Hospital food standards – what care to expect
Official standards vary between each of the devolved nations – check out our summaries of key points relating to gluten free provision below, or download the full standard yourself ahead of your hospital visit.
As of April 2015, hospital food standards in England are compulsory and legally binding.
There are five food standards which all hospitals should
follow, including the British Dietetic Association’s Nutrition and Hydration Digest (3rd edition 2023).
The Digest, which was developed with support from Coeliac UK, recommends that all hospitals:
- Have a written policy for providing gluten free meals. This should cover the meals and snacks, the menus available for patients to choose from and the controls in place to ensure GF meals and snacks are sourced, prepared and served to eliminate cross contamination.
- Ensure a policy is in place to cover training for all staff involved in providing meals i.e. dietitians, front line food service assistants, catering and nursing staff.
- Provide written materials for patients that help support informed choices and reflect what catering staff have been trained on and are able to provide.
Download the full document here.
One of the ten standards requires patients who need nutritional intervention to have a nursing care plan, however there is no specific mention of special diets or coeliac disease.
The standards do state that all patients should be screened for malnutrition when they are admitted to hospital, so we recommend mentioning that you need a gluten free diet as soon as you are admitted, or if you know that you are going in to hospital then call to speak to the ward staff in advance.
Scottish guidance states that all patients must be offered a choice of food that meets their dietary needs, including choice for individuals requiring a therapeutic or special diet, which includes a gluten free diet.
Upon admittance to hospital, patient’s dietary needs should be assessed to make sure that the hospital can cater for them. So if you are on a gluten free diet and are admitted into hospital, staff will identify your requirements and cater for you. The nurse responsible for the ward is responsible for ensuring that patients receive the right meal.
Welsh hospital standards are mandatory for all hospitals in Wales and specify that:
- All hospitals and Local Health Boards must provide gluten free meals for people with coeliac disease
- Patients must be provided with a choice of meals, and that these meals also meet nutritional standards.
- Upon admittance to a hospital a patient’s dietary needs must be assessed to make sure that the hospital can cater for them.
The standards also highlight the importance of minimising cross contamination by thoroughly cleaning work areas, surfaces, serving areas, utensils, equipment, chopping boards and hands.
If something goes wrong
If you’re not happy with the food that is provided during your hospital stay, we recommend speaking to the ward staff about this while you are there. They are best placed to ensure you get the correct food. You can also ask to speak to the hospital dietitian who may be able to talk to the catering staff on your behalf.
It’s also advised to contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at the hospital. This will also help to formally raise the profile of any issues so lessons can be learned and actions taken to make improvements going forward.
Each hospital has a PALS team and it is their job to listen to patients, their relatives, carers and friends about any positive or negative experiences they have had during their stay. They will try to answer any questions and resolve any concerns as quickly as possible.
You could also contact the Nutrition and Dietetic team at the hospital and let them know your concerns. They can then pass your feedback on to the catering department on your behalf. Some hospitals take up Coeliac UK’s catering training, and even become accredited with our GF Accreditation scheme, so you could provide information on these resources with your feedback.