/ Food & Drink, Health

Is hospital food packaging a problem?

yoghurt pot

Have you ever been in hospital and not been able to open a sandwich packet, pack of biscuits or drink carton? Or maybe you’ve seen an elderly patient, friend or relative give up and go hungry?

Difficult-to-open food packs are an annoyance at the best of times, but they become a much more serious problem when it’s patients in hospital who need to open them.

Shouldn’t we expect the NHS to encourage people in hospital to eat by providing them with easy-to-open food packaging?

Which? Conversation commenter Lessismore described the problem on a previous discussion:

‘It isn’t just the nutritional value of the food – it is the way it is served […]

‘This can include grated cheese and salad and flaked tuna in plastic tubs to go with the ubiquitous baked potatoes. The elderly need help to open these pots and help to open the fruit pots and help to open the packed sandwiches and help to open any salad cream or tomato sauce in a small plastic sachet. This is time consuming for the staff too.’

Food should be easy to access

Rica is a sister charity of Which? and specialises in working with disabled and older consumers. We’ve been testing the ease of opening food packaging with Marks & Spencer and Age UK to the new international ISO standard ‘Packaging accessible design – ease of opening’.

We believe that hospitals should be using this new standard to improve patients’ nutrition, independence, dignity and inclusion.

Patients can’t open their food

Helen’s experience demonstrates why this issue is so important:

‘I was unfortunate to end up in hospital last week. I was put on a ward where most of the patients were elderly women. One had previously had a stroke and had recently fallen (which was why she was in). Another clearly could not walk and had to be helped with all her basic needs. When it came to food, I was disgusted.

‘Not only was it packet breakfast cereal, but these poor women couldn’t even open the packet. I helped the lady who had had a stroke as no-one was available to help her.’

What do you think? Is hospital food packaging a problem? What are the worst types of hard-to-open food packages? And what do you think should be done?

This is a guest contribution by Caroline Jacobs, co-director of Rica (Research Institute for Consumer Affairs), Which?’s sister research charity, which focuses on older and disabled consumers. All opinions are Caroline’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I find it difficult enough to open some packaging and I am not half prostrate and enfeebled as a result of an operation or illness. It must be tormenting to be stuck there with food in front of you and you can’t even open it. If patients’ food now comes in packets and sachets then somebody needs to go round to each bed and make sure that the patient can cope and open the packaging for them.


Considering how many people struggle with packaging when they are not in hospital, the answer must be for those delivering the food to ensure that packets etc. are opened for the patients. I’ve seen elderly people struggling to eat in hospital, so it’s important that help is available.

I am not sure about seeking help from Marks & Spencer. I nominate their plastic tubs of ‘fresh’ soup as the most challenging food packaging I have encountered recently.


I have had that problem with ‘fresh’ soup and also with tubs of fruit pieces. Even getting the protective cap off before you get to the thin seal is an effort. Things where you have to break a tab off are another difficulty and I still have the wounds to prove it. Opening small bottles of orange juice is almost impossible because the caps have been put on and sealed under pressure by machine and there is not enough to get hold of in order to twist the cap off.

I had some toothpaste recently where the inner seal over the tube outlet had lost its tab and I had to stab it to make an opening.

It’s best to leave the surgery to the surgeons but it might be handy to have some instruments to hand when going into hospital. “Scalpel . . . forceps”.


These problems are familiar to me too, John. Missing tabs seems a very common problem.

Back with the challenges for patients, I have seen people struggling with cartons of protein drinks and straws. These are often given to people who are not eating an adequate diet.


I worked in a NHS hospital 45 yrs ago when there were auxiliary nurses to help the less able to eat ( well before excessive packaging) do these good people still exist or have they been deemed unnecessary by Govt. cutbacks?

Time to bring back Matron me thinks!


I agree with you Carole. Nursing was more continuous in those days. I remember when my mother was in hospital there were always several nurses and auxiliaries on the ward to look after the patients and a staff nurse to supervise.

I am not quite sure, given the immense [and rising] resources poured into the NHS every year, whether it is fair to attribute staffing shortages to government cuts or a desire to keep extending services to more and more expensive treatments and procedures than the system was designed for. The principal hospital in Norfolk has over 7,000 staff, carries out 153 operations a day, and serves 2,250 meals a day to patients, as well as providing a huge range of out-patient services and dealing with 260 daily in A&E. It also relies on 600 volunteers to support the permanent establishment. Over the last few decades there has been an explosion of demand for hospital services and cutting back on some ancillary functions has been an inevitable consequence. Despite the massive financial provision represented by the statistics they still want more.

Colette says:
7 November 2015

I quite agree about Marks and Spencer’s packets of sandwiches , I am elderly but not disabled and I find it almost impossible to open packets without using scissors. So do not use them as a good example!


Presumably many hospitals buy in their food and it thus needs the protection of packaging. However, why when it is dispensed it is not simply opened for patients is beyond me.
The quality of some of the food that is pre-packaged is questionable. I’d be more than happy if I was in hospital to be given M&S food. As they clearly show an interest their own packaging may well improve and we’ll find it easier to break off the tab and lift the lid on soup.


I have read that a considerable amount of hospital food is not eaten. Inevitably, some patients will not have much of an appetite but I wonder how much the challenges of packaging and the difficulty of eating without help contributes to this waste.