FIRST PERSON: Providing a good quality, edible meal is hardly brain surgery.So why do hospitals do it so badly? Raymond Gordon relates his experiences

We are what we eat, according to one radical philosopher. By this, he meant the way we get our food defines the type of society we live in. This is no less true when we are ill. I have recently experienced the food provision in two large west London hospitals. Convalescing after a five-hour operation, I needed more than anything to build myself up.An extended course of antibiotics made me nauseous and irritated my stomach.

There was room for considerable improvement in the way the food was prepared and presented. The administrative compression of the hospital day meant that mealtimes often coincided with blood tests and observation of pulse, respiration and temperature. And mealtimes often coincided with nurses' drug rounds.My nausea tablet, for example, was supposed to be taken one hour before meals. The upshot was that although patients got their meal, there was no monitoring or encouragement to ensure they ate it.

Raymond Gordon is a mosaic artist.

Another problem was the appearance of the food.

Patients may be disinclined to eat because of their medical condition, but more could be done to make food look appetising. Bringing in chefs to experiment with new recipes is a move in the right direction. Dietitians may ensure that food conforms to nutritional standards and safety directives, but this is to little avail if it is not temptingly palatable. One experimenting chef this year introduced cous-cous to the hospital menu which, with very little modification, could satisfy religious and vegetarian requirements and still stay within the budget of about 85p per meal.

In one hospital, I persuaded the kitchen staff to give me hot milk and white bread pieces for breakfast one day. This could be an option without using any new ingredients. It helped me immensely during a very difficult period in my recovery. I only needed it for a few days. And I only received it once, as a special favour.

I saw elderly patients being given their dinner trays without anyone offering to help them eat. In the US, there used to be a Pinky system, whereby Pinkies - young people interested in becoming nurses - helped out at mealtimes. Some volunteered, while others were paid a small amount to come into the hospital at mealtimes to help out on the wards.

Is there a basic incompatibility between an exciting dish of good, fresh food in hospital and the contracting out of catering provision to private companies? Such companies aim to provide a nutritionally balanced diet while keeping costs to a minimum. To raise the standard of provision would take more time and staff, and a greater variety of food, even for a simple meal like breakfast. The aroma of fresh coffee and baking bread is preferable to white sliced, untoasted bread, or cereal with cold milk. But such luxuries take time and care to prepare.

And still on the subject of breakfast, it is common for patients with special needs to receive extra items.

Thus a soft diet may include yoghurt. There are many varieties of yoghurt, from flavoured or set to live organic and drinking yoghurts, which replace the flora in the stomachs of patients on antibiotics.

But it takes time and effort to seek out these products and, as we all know, time is money.

Finally, it is common practice to plonk an orange on a patient's breakfast or lunch tray if they need fibre or vitamin C.Have you ever tried to peel a sour orange with your fingers and a blunt knife in bed, with no napkin? Oranges are not the only fruit. Figs, raspberries, strawberries, and even - heaven forbid - ripe mangoes are readily available if there is time, initiative and, above all, money to seek them out.