/ Food & Drink, Health

Time for hospital food to get better

Three apples, with a plaster on one

Sustain’s Campaign for Better Hospital Food wants mandatory standards for patient meals in England. In this guest post, Alex Jackson from Sustain explains why voluntary measures are not working.

Most of the food served in the UK’s public sector has to meet nutritional and quality standards, including school food, and food served in government departments, prisons, and Scottish and Welsh hospitals. Surely it’s time for English hospitals to join the gang?

Last week the Campaign for Better Hospital Food published a report called ‘Twenty years of hospital food failure’, which found that the Westminster government has spent more than £50m on 21 failed voluntary initiatives to improve hospital food since 1992, appointing numerous celebrities and celebrity chefs along the way.

Despite this lavish expenditure – enough to build 34 new state of the art hospital ‘super-kitchens’ – patient meals remain as bad as ever. Today, one in every 10 patient meals are thrown in the bin uneaten and the nutritional quality of hospital ready meals is often poorer than the food you would get in a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.

Approximately two thirds of NHS staff say they wouldn’t eat the food they serve to patients.

The need for mandatory standards

I believe that these voluntary initiatives have failed because they are entirely ignorable, created to make it feel and sound like something is being done, and to make a short-lived splash in the media. It’s time for government to ditch the voluntary approach and instead introduce mandatory hospital food standards for patient meals in England.

Mandatory standards would require hospitals to serve, for example, more fruit and vegetables. Patient meals would contain healthier amounts of salt and saturated fat, as well as fresh, seasonal ingredients grown using less oil and water and without damaging soil and biodiversity. Hospital kitchens would use more produce from the best British farmers and only fish which is certified to be sustainable.

This would drive up quality standards, but also ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent on hospital food that does good – for our health, for the environment, for our economy, and for animal welfare, to name but a few – rather than harm.

The government currently opposes the introduction of mandatory standards for hospital food, and says that local people are best placed to influence what hospitals serve to patients. Which local people are we talking about here? Surely not the ones who may be unconscious, elderly, upset, very ill or having an operation? Shouldn’t we be caring for them? And putting good food at the heart of compassionate care?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Alex Jackson, co-ordinator for the Campaign for Better Hospital Food. All opinions expressed here are Alex’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


My tip from stays in different hospitals is to go for the South Asian/halal option. They were brought in and easily of the quality of top-end supermarket ready meals. Such stuff probably isn’t that healthy though, all that ghee, but I don’t think that’s the point. You are in hospital to get well, and part of that process is eating well. If you’re feeling bad it’s a struggle to get anything down at all. If its tasty and appetising you’ve got more chance of getting something inside you and that can’t be a bad thing. So what if it’s sweet or fatty or got salt in it – you’re not eating it day in day out.

Hospital food is in desperate need of improvement; just don’t let the food police – brown grit R us – anywhere near it. Or if you do give people the choice.


When my dad was in hospital recovering from his triple heart bypass, the only thing wrong with the whole saga was the very poor quality of the food. He is diabetic and they wondered when feeding him sugary food ( no doubt the cheapest yoghurts they could get), white bread etc why they then had to keep him in 4 days extra to try and get that under control. All the while my mum who had been “feeding” him, preparing his meals for many years before hand with no hint of blood sugar levels being a problem, was ignored when she’d point out why no whole meal rolls, why not use yoghurts with no added sugar etc, They weren’t interested. In the end we had to remove him from the very patient hostile environment to home were within a few days his levels were back to normal. I wonder if hospitals know how to treat patients as they only seem to be able to cater for statistics.


I’m not surprised. Apart from anything else the usual arrangement is that you’re left with a tick box menu to order lunch and dinner which someone collects mid-morning. When you land on the ward you get whatever the person who was in the bed the night before wanted. And as for reasons which must make sense – if someone ever explained it all to you – you can be moved wards every few days so the chances of getting what you want, even if you have strict requirements, are often slim.


There are times when you hear something that shakes you totally – that surely can’t be true? That managers in hospitals and trusts (hardly appropriate) can fiddle the mortality figures so their incompetence as medical centres is disguised is virtually criminal.
To know that hospitals spend huge amounts on medical and surgical treatment to save our health and wellbeing, and to then neglect to provide appetising and nutritious food to help us recover is unbelievably stupid. Apparently 9 million meals were returned uneaten over 12 months – presumably a fair proportion uneatable. No wonder, if they spend less than £1 a meal – less than half the amount we spend on prisoners.
I suspect I know the answer – clever people who think they will get on by cutting expenditure to the bone, without thinking of the consequences. Sadly, I think this is endemic at work of all kinds, where people behave out of character in the rat race to advance their careers – shame to mention banks again as an example, salesmen, MPs……….
Perhaps someone responsible for the NHS would like to justify why they don’t properly address food. The £40 million spend on “food research” could have enhanced the £1 meal I suggest for a year, when around 120 million meals are “served”.

gimcrack says:
28 February 2013

I’ve found hospital food to be nutritious and tasty. Ok, you need a liking for school dinners, but surely my local hospital can’t be an anomaly?


Thanks everyone for your comments. They’re fascinating, insightful and useful!

We’re calling for hospital food standards for the reasons I give in the blog, but we also recognise that this is one – albeit vital – thing which needs to be done in conjunction with a number of other measures. For example, Age UK has done some brilliant campaigning to try and change the way that hospital food is served (an issue picked up by Nick Davies’s comment), particularly to elderly patients.

There is nothing as powerful as testimonies like yours, so can I encourage you to visit our campaign website and use our ‘action’ to write to Jeremy Hunt to describe your experiences and tell him your views? You can do this by visiting http://www.sustainweb.org/hospitalfood/action/.

Thanks again for showing your interest in hospital food!


Done, with this as my 1st paragraph, Good luck.

In my own experience hospital food caters for ethnic diets but does not cater for people suffering from Type 2 diabetes ( diet controlled ). They get fed the same sugary/ starchy junk that is served to others and the hospital then wonders why a patients blood sugar levels run riot, needing a further 4-5 days stay in hospital and costly medicine to bring it back under control, all for the want of saving a few pennies per meal. Madness.


It is a long time since I have been in hospital but I do remember being presented with cornflakes and white bread for breakfast. I remember commenting that it would be better to eat the box than the cornflakes, since at least the box contains fibre. William is absolutely right.