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Why is Hospital Food Often so Bad?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are a number of reasons why hospital food is often less than stellar. In the early 21st century, many hospitals began to recognize the infamous reputation of hospital food, and a few began pilot programs which focused on improving the quality of their food. Supporters of these programs argued that healthy, good food is a very important part of proper medical care.

Many people are surprised to learn about how unhealthy hospital food is, since they assume that the food served in a hospital would be at least healthy, if not always appetizing. One of the excuses which is trotted out to explain why hospital food tastes bad is that hospital meals are constructed with dietary concerns in mind, rather than flavor. In fact, even the meals which have been specially prepared for patients with unique needs are often unhealthy, thanks to the ingredients used and the ways in which they are prepared.

Most hospitals contract out their lucrative cafeteria plans to companies which specialize in preparing institutional food. The same companies make food for prisons and schools, institutions which are also infamous for having terrible food. These companies focus on producing high volumes of food at low cost, often taking advantage of extensive distribution systems which allow them to send packaged and already mostly prepared food to the hospitals they contract with. By the time this food reaches the hospital, it may be well past its peak, and it is often laden with saturated fat, sodium, and other substances which are harmful in large amounts. It is also typically made as bland as possible, so that it is inoffensive, and many things are overcooked, thanks to being cooked remotely and then reheated at the hospital.

Institutional food also takes advantage of bulk food costs which are often negotiated by government agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture. Commodities like corn and wheat are often provided at very low cost, along with cheaper cuts of meat, and so cafeteria plans make heavy use of these cheaper ingredients, avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables, which cost more.

Hospital food also rarely caters to ethnic tastes, which can be difficult for people from different cultures while they are at the hospital. Because cafeteria contracts are extremely profitable, family members may be told not to bring in food, even when it is obvious that a patient refuses to eat the food for cultural or religious reasons. For people with very specific tastes, it can be a good idea to talk to a doctor about any recommended dietary restrictions and then smuggle food in to ensure that the patient eats well.

Hospital food may be in for a makeover. Institutional food in general has made leaps and bounds since the 1990s, for a number of reasons. Consumers are often more aware of the effects of eating unhealthy foods, for example, and many consumers are also starting to demand food which is ethically and sustainably produced. Hospitals which have offered more varied fare produced on site with local, fresh products have noted the positive response, and the trend is likely to spread.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1007445 — On Jul 11, 2022

I refuse to eat hospital food. Good thing, too. When I had a pancreatitis attack, the food they brought me was mostly high fructose corn syrup. That is a very violent laxative for me.

So from now on, I pack my food and my water and grape juice because they can't serve 100% food, it has to be 50% high fructose corn syrup because hospitals want diabetics. If they didn't they would not serve food with 50% HFCS

By anon975153 — On Oct 24, 2014

I used to work for a food service company that specialized in bulk institutional cooking. I'd have to say that most of the raw ingredients I dealt with were at least cafeteria-grade, if not name brand. The jello we made in huge vats was the real JELLO brand, for example. We would pour dozens of large cans of peaches or fruit mix into vats and measure out amounts for each institution we served. There was nothing particularly bad about those canned or boxed items.

I think the problem with institutional cooking lies with bulk preparation methods. If roasted chicken was on the menu, we would have to cut up hundreds of fresh chickens and roast them in large convection ovens. I'm sure there were plenty of times when a run of chickens was either overcooked or undercooked when we took them out of the oven to put new racks in. The clients who got those chickens were probably not going to be happy. It's hard for a hospital cafeteria to prepare hundreds of meals and be consistent with all of them. There are time constraints and other things to consider.

I also had to prepare a lot of bulk meals using commercial steam-jacketed pots. I would first make a gravy or sauce in those pots and then add boxes of precooked meats, like country steaks or hamburger patties. The steam helped cook everything evenly, but it didn't always do much for the flavor or the texture. Sometimes foods cooked in large batches come out in worse shape than the same foods cooked to order.

By summertime — On Oct 21, 2010

As the lead culinary chef at a local hospital, I can assure you that my staff strives their hardest and works long hours to be able to provide our patients with an excellent dining experience. No one wants to be in the hospital and most people do not like to eat food while they're there, because of the massive reputation and bad stories that people heard about hospital food.

Every day I struggle to defeat this reputation improves my patience of the people who eat my food that this is simply not the case. This is a difficult task as people have very different tastes and just as you go to a restaurant and choose which mealoff of the menu, people want to be able to decide what they're going to eat and this simply is not always the case with hospital food service.

As much as I would love to be able to deliver custom meals to all of my patients, this is simply not a reality with the way the hospital can operate. Maybe someday and that very private and expensive hospitals this is an option, but for the general public we simply cannot provide this level of service for the amount of patients that we must feed. It is sad but simple truth that hospital food is sometimes bland but the reason for this is because we have to be able to make the food edible by many different types of people and tastes.

By FootballKing — On Oct 21, 2010

On a recent trip to visit my grandmother in the hospital I was actually quite pleasantly surprised at the availability of diet options that they gave her. All of the options and selection choices were also of quality ingredients and menu types. There was also a variety of availability in ethnic cuisine to help people of different cultures feel at home with the food that they were consuming during their stay at the hospital.

While I realize that not everyone is as luck as my grandma and don't always stay in the nicest of hospitals but on this occasion there was no reason to be complaining about the type of hospital food that was made available to the patients. I hope that any future hospital visits I have to make are accompanied by excellent food choices.

By FrogFriend — On Oct 21, 2010

Unlike @GraniteChief all of my experiences with hospital cruising in meals has been discussed. The quality is consistently low and the preparation looks as though someone who doesn't care about their job. I can imagine that it is not fun to work inside of the hospital kitchen, but there are sick people who rely on your cooking skills to fill better. Slopping together meal simply will not do for people who are in need of quality nutrition.

While I understand the difficulties in providing excellent tasting food for many different mouse, I do think it is possible to take specific care and actions to ensure that the food that you were serving is of a quality level. Only when people put in a genuine effort and actually care about the people that are eating their food, will donate spend the extra time that it takes to ensure that the food is not only edible but very tasty as well.

By GraniteChief — On Oct 21, 2010

Contrary to the popular reputation that it has, I have had nothing but good experiences with hospital food. While no one wants to be in the hospital, the food can truly make a difference as far as your comfort level and your ability to heal. I think it is important for hospitals to provide quality food to their patients as it is a comforting effect that can come when you eat quality food.

If the food is not quality than people will become disgusted and be discouraged to feeling better. With such a simple thing is creating a quality food dish, this seems like a basic service that hospitals should have down. All of the hospitals I've stated provided a very healthy and very tasty meal for me to eat during my stay. I haven't had too many of these experiences, but I feel confident that the next time I have to be in the hospital I will be able to eat exactly what they serve.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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