Hospital food isn’t a joke. It’s a scandal

The list of options is ever longer. But good luck finding something you’d want to eat

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

One of the patients I see regularly as a voluntary hospital visitor, who has been in hospital for weeks, seems to be getting better. Still skeletally thin, he is now sitting up and complaining. His problem is that he longs for a jacket potato with just butter. He hates beans. But he might as well ask for gravadlax and dill. On the hospital menu, baked potatoes only come with baked beans.

I asked one of the Thai ladies who deliver the food if he could possibly have a plain spud. ‘Not possible,’ she said, ‘all with beans.’ She said she would go and ask someone, but who that might be I don’t know: I have never seen anyone in charge of food.

‘It’s hopeless,’ he told me. ‘I’ve asked them before, they won’t do it.’ The only alternative in the potato department is a wet grey mush, and people quickly learn to avoid the fish pie with its slimy contents and topping of grey cumulus blobs. One Spanish patient told me that in hospital at home they’d been served fresh fish most days from the local harbour. The medicine, however, wasn’t as good as the food, so she came here. When I asked her about the fish pie, she put her tongue out in disgust.

There are in fact a great many dishes on the long laminated menu card. You can have curried goat, ackee and saltfish, Arabic halal, Asian halal and Asian vegan, but no plain potato, ice cream, custard, diabetic desserts, or anything freshly cooked.

I had a look in the ward kitchen. It was sparkling clean, with acres of shiny stainless steel sinks and bright lights. It could have doubled as an operating theatre except it was unused, apart from four gleaming microwaves for defrosting. Not even an egg is boiled in there. When I was a patient in 2010, one day out of sheer mischief, I asked for a fried egg for breakfast. I was told emphatically that this was impossible. The Thai tea lady tittered, as if I had demanded a full English.

This isn’t a trivial issue. Over the past year, in the big London teaching hospital where I visit, I’ve seen people of all ages, but particularly the old, fading away from lack of nourishment. I used to urge them to eat, saying things like ‘You must try to build yourself up’, but there was no point.

Making sure patients who struggle to eat are actually fed is another problem. There is now a system of using red trays for people who are not eating but this does not always work. I was in a bay recently with three women being looked after by one young care assistant. She was getting one of them up but at the same time another needed help to get to the lavatory, and the third ‘red tray’ patient needed feeding. She was sitting in front of a bowl of soggy cornflakes which were removed before she’d eaten anything. I was there to help that morning, but usually I’m not. These days you need to be tough and well nourished before you enter hospital if you want to survive.

I put this, and the incident of the potato, to a doctor. ‘People tell me these things all the time,’ he said rather desperately. ‘But that is the way it is. The NHS is a huge bureaucracy and nothing ever changes.’

Last week it was been revealed that, on the strange planet known as the NHS in England, hospital trusts have been hiding the poor state of their food. They carry out annual assessments of the quality of hospital food and in 2011 rated 98 per cent of their meals‘good’ or ‘excellent’. But the Campaign for Better Hospital Food says that surveys show nearly half of patients were dissatisfied with what they were offered.

Alex Jackson, co-ordinator of the campaign, wants food standards to be set for all hospitals. But I wonder if more bureaucracy is the answer. The solution is probably as impossible as getting a cooked breakfast; hospitals need more money, good cooks and common sense.

After my shift I went to the staff canteen for lunch. It’s not great — they use water instead of milk in the cheese sauce and the much-vaunted English puddings taste of Aspartame, but there are trays of hot cooked food, good chips, fresh salads and hecatombs of baked potatoes naked as nature intended. It seemed such a pity that some of that food couldn’t be delivered to the wards, just a short distance away.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Jane Kelly is a consulting editor for the Salisbury Review.

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Show comments
  • AndyB

    Jamie Oliver’s next gig then…. step up, mate?

    • SPW

      Hear, hear!

    • Ghangstalked

      Not only is that funny it is also a commercially viable suggestion.

      The ratings would be huge, it is the BBC that should step up and put it on.

  • John Lea

    James Martin did an excellent one-off programme on this a year or so ago, which drew attention to this very issue. Well done, Jane, on picking up the baton! I’ve only been in hospital once in my life and the food was so appalling I simply couldn’t eat it. And it wasn’t just me: in fact at one point the problem was so bad that the nursing staff serving it up just laughed when they realised how many people – many of them elderly – were refusing to eat the disgusting rubbish that was being laid before them. You can’t criticise the National Health though eh – not ever – such a wonderful institution – other countries look on us with envy!

  • simmo70


    ID Smith has not only been taken to the Hague over his
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    Poverty caused by the Bedroom Tax.

    Universal Credit is still an ‘Embryo’ & not fit to be rolled out in
    October.Although Smith in his ‘wisdom’ has brought in the Ex Head of a Building Firm “to cement it together”.

    Nicholson with NHS Deaths on his hands has so far
    collected £8000,000,000 for the sell off of the NHS.Austerity – “were all in it

    Compulsive Liar & Expenses Thief Grayling stated in
    February that Prisoners watching TV would be restricted & they must work
    harder to earn Privileges.From 2009 to 2013 we have paid £15 million on TV’s.

    The Funding we give to Al-Qaeda against Syria’s Assad is
    being spent on Engineers to examine the Vulnerabilities in Drones. Lying Public
    Purse Thieving Lunatics Run the Asylum.BSB


  • Fasdunkle

    This is a ridiculous article – British hospitals have to ensure the dietary requirements of people from all over the world are catered to in every minute detail – that isn’t cheap so of course the British food served will be cheap and nasty as there is very little money left over for the people who actually pay for the NHS.

    • willshome

      She knocks them up, you bash them in. If there was ever a dog whistle to say “it’s all down to a combination of PC and immigrants” there you have it. With a Thai lady serving too, so you get the “stealing our jobs” bit too. Yes the food is sub-standard, and the reason is highly paid (probably white) administrators who wouldn’t eat that crap if you paid them double putting the catering out to private firms. (Hence the empty kitchen.) A proper cooking and proper food campaign like the one that has done something about the similarly privatised school meals system is required. And the need is urgent.

  • Jennifer Howze

    Considering how vital nutrition and healthy food are to healing, it is shocking the poor quality of food. After all, a patient who eats well, gets better quicker and gets a balanced diet including fresh fruit and vegetable is likely to exit their bed sooner and be on their way. When I was in hospital a few years ago, I arranged for my husband to bring sandwiches and fresh fruit from home.

  • I don’t see why hospitals have to cater to the halal demands of arselifters when the filthy koranus tells them that they are permitted the food of the kuffar in dar al-harb.

  • justejudexultionis

    Kick out all the immigrants and you might just start to get something approaching a national health service for ordinary British people instead of the current farce.

    • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

      How does that work then ?

    • Robert Kaye

      You might find it a little understaffed.

  • DavidL

    Having in the last year or so had three stints in two London teaching hospitals, I can vouch for the utter awfulness of the food. Even the simplest items – soup for example – were not merely unappetising, but positively unpleasant, and (I would judge) utterly lacking in nutritional value. I was lucky enough to have a loving wife close by, and so I received one tasty, cheering and nutritious meal every day – prepared by her own fair hands. No-one asked me to comment on the food. I wish they had.
    I should add that the clinical and nursing care was always good, and on occasions excellent – much of it delivered by immigrants (boo!!! hiss!!!) or the children or grandchildren of immigrants.

  • saffrin

    Hospital food in staff canteens is all right. Freshly cooked and all that. Hot even.
    As for those scrounging patients, they need to learn that money doesn’t grow on trees and the NHS really does need all those hundreds of thousands on managers.
    Sorry, patients will just have to put up with the factory processed crap or sod-off someplace else for their pills & potions.