Hospital food: the best reason to keep your heart healthy and avoid hospitalization

The first real food served to me in the hospital’s Coronary Care Unit after my heart attack was a cold roast beef sandwich on doughy white bread.  I was surprised (red meat for a heart attack survivor?) but also hungry, so I managed to scarf it down.

In August, I was back in hospital for another cardiac procedure, and again my first meal was another sandwich: this time, a single unadorned, slimy, food-style processed cheese slice on that same doughy white bread.

This is what’s being served in a hospital cardiac unit? What are they thinking? 

I should have learned my lesson after my first visit.  Why didn’t I just pack a nice lunch before heading to the hospital?  So notoriously revolting are most hospital food trays that a number of sites feature photographs of mystery meat smothered with thick globby gravy, each shot trying to outdo the last.  I’ve even found shots of really appealing hospital trays from Spain, for example, that show us what could be done!

One poor hospital patient in the U.K. even started a Hospital Food Bingo Game online, asking visitors to correctly guess the content of each hospital tray photo he posted. Fewer than half could guess accurately.

And I really should have known better, having worked in this very hospital since 2000.  In fact, our nurses used to frequently ask me to photograph particularly disgusting or unrecognizable meals on the arriving tray carts, by way of documenting the embarrassing evidence for hospital administrators.

But we all knew it didn’t have to be this way. When a major renovation of our 17-bed unit meant a 3-month relocation of our patients to a nearby seniors facility a few years ago, we found out how beautifully delicious and healthy hospital food could actually be.

Other Canadian hospitals believe this to be true as well. Some have even begun offering a version of room service, where meals are made when patients order them, rather than being cooked, chilled and then re-heated. Julia Dumanian, CEO of Ontario’s Cambridge Memorial Hospital, says her hospital is a pioneer of a new food service concept called ‘Steamplicity’:

“We were tired of hospital food being the butt of everyone’s jokes.”

North York General Hospital in Toronto has also implemented the ‘Steamplicity’ system, which has already earned positive reviews after being pilot-tested on a couple of its wards. It uses a special enclosure that creates a pressure-cooker effect when food is heated just before being delivered, the goal being to approximate a freshly cooked meal.

A British study two years ago found patients there were impressed by the results, and actually ate more food than those presented with traditionally prepared hospital meals.

The most ambitious changes, though, are happening in the United States, with hundreds of hospitals signing on to an approach that emphasizes cooking food from scratch, using fresh, often locally grown, ingredients.  Dr. Diane D’Isidori is co-founder of the Plow-to-Plate program at Connecticut’s New Milford Hospital.

“To me, if you’re a hospital and you’re not serving food that is good for the body, you’re not true to your mission. A hospital is supposed to be about making people well … and food is an integral part of that.”  

Learn more about farm-to-hospital programs in this essay on Real Food, Real Health.

And would somebody please explain to me why all hospitals are not implementing food service programs like the  Izaak Walton Killam Health Centre does in Halifax? Its innovative 24/7 Dial for Dining program received a 3M Health Care Quality Team Award last year, which honoured IWK for these reason:

Dial for Dining has increased patient satisfaction, enhanced patient consumption of healthy foods, substantially reduced food wastage, improved green initiatives, and helped the IWK Health Centre save valuable financial resources.”

  ♥    ♥    ♥

See also: “My Debut on the National News”


Hospital Food Inspection Update: May 10, 2011:  Food serving areas at the 264-bed  Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa racked up nine food safety violations during an  Ontario Food Premises health inspection last week — five of them “critical”.

Critical safety violations cited, including “lack of adequate protection from contamination”, can contribute to foodborne illness. Non-critical safety violations included citations for “lacking proper protection from the entrance of bugs and rodents”.


25 thoughts on “Hospital food: the best reason to keep your heart healthy and avoid hospitalization

  1. At hospital pre-admission session, I said I was allergic to shellfish and did not eat red meat, especially beef. My first meal, believe it or not, was clam chowder and a cold roast beef sandwich on the same soggy white bread everyone mentions.


    1. Good grief. Why bother asking patients to even show up for a “pre-admission” appointment if hospitals disregard such specific dietary requirements?!


  2. Just as concerning as hospital food is the food that is served in long-term care facilities. It is basically the same as hospital food. Frozen pre-cooked food that has lost all of the nutritional value. Something should be done for the elderly who might have to face these horrible meals for years. There was recently a video on YouTube about the food served in long-term care facilities in Alberta. I was absolutely shocked. I presume it is the same across most of the country. The patients don’t get fresh fruit or vegetables. The meat is unrecognizable and everything tastes the same from one day to the next. I could just break your heart that our aging population is living this way.


    1. I absolutely agree, Laura. All institutional food carries the same risk of being both unappetizing and unpalatable. Average cost per day for hospital food is $8 per person (three meals plus two snacks). By comparison, Canadian PRISONS pay $12 per day per person for food services.


  3. When I’m sick, my food has no appeal at the best of times, but hospital food is the worst at all times.

    Bagged salads that smell bad, mystery meat, and dry toast, don’t help….. I get healthy eating, but what nutritionist in their right mind would think that the slop they send on your tray is good for you, or healthy? Like people before me, thank goodness for my family and home cooked, healthy food, cause you can’t poop when you don’t eat, and can’t leave without pooping….

    I don’t believe that the food is good for you, or that the hospital saves money serving this, so to the people in power that make this decision to serve this stuff, god bless you at your next hospital stay!!!!

    Don’t forget to clean your trays, so you too can poop and get out of the bed, and go to a great meal at your favorite cafe…..


  4. Hiya from South Africa! I have found your article about hospital food through a friend. Great content here! Angela E. King x


    1. I was hospitalized in Halifax recently for a suspected heart attack. For the first four meals I was offerd a sandwich. The first 24 were spent in the ER but after that, the sandwiches kept coming. Dry roast beef seemed popular. On complaining at the fourth sandwich as a supper, they ‘found’ a mac and cheese that they proudly produced. It looked like mac and cheese but upon tasting it, it was more like wallpaper paste with lumps.

      I am a dialysis patient as well so they did weigh me right before my hospitalization and two days later. I lost two kilos! In two days! My daughter brought me in some salad which got me through. Not the place I want to be if I can help it!


  5. It’s encouraging to see those Ontario hospitals and others get serious about making hospital food not only palatable and safe, but delicious and healthy for patients. I think it’s a myth that serving beautiful food has to cost more than serving what’s in these photos.


  6. Great website! The photos of some of these hospital trays are unbelievable and unrecognizable. What kind of employee can: #1 slop this crap onto a plate and #2 actually deliver it to a hospital room for face-to-face presentation to a sick person? Do they become blind to the appearance of what they are handling after a while? Shocking….


    1. Don’t blame the front line workers- they are just doing their job. Look to the top of the administration, and particularly here in Ontario, at the Minister Of Health. you can bet your last scoop of instant mashed potatoes that she and the overpaid CEOs don’t eat this crap, and they would not allow it to be served to their families and friends.


      1. Hi Bobbi – It’s true that the front line workers are not cooking or deciding on these meals. But when I worked in communications at our local hospital, nurses who intercepted these trays en route to patients would often tell me “Bring your camera!” to photograph particularly disgusting meal trays before sending the trays back untouched to the kitchen – photos to be sent to the hospital’s CEO. If more nurses (and more Food Services staff delivering this stuff to the bedside) simply refused to bring it anywhere near a patient, senior hospital administration might get the message.

        In fact, I support a mass delivery of all inedible hospital food directly to the office of the hospital CEO who allows this to continue.


      2. Excellent comment. Maybe our Minister in charge of Health Care and staff should be asked to eat hospital meals for a month. Maybe, just maybe, some changes for the better would be considered.


        1. A years ago, I was admitted at 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday to have surgery on a broken ankle. At 10.p.m. I was still in my room, waiting for a surgery suite, nothing to eat or drink for 24 hours. With surgery postponed, I was offered a light snack. The fake, thin sliced turkey presented on unbuttered white bread without any condiments had been in the fridge for goodness knows how long.

          Thursday, no surgery suite, so at 10 p.m. they brought a small wilted salad- no dressing.

          Friday- still no surgery suite, don’t remember what my 10 p.m. treat was.

          Finally, Saturday 6:30 a.m. Thankfully, my surgery was over within an hour and I was back in my room til 4 p.m. then discharged.

          I lost just over 4 pounds lying flat on my back. Sure felt sorry for the lady in the next bed- she was blind, and only one nurse tried to help her eat. Lucky for her she had two sons who could bring her homecooked meals. Not an option for me, since I had to be ready for surgery at the drop of a scalpel.


          1. Hi again Bobbi – losing four pounds in 3 days is extreme. This is an unfortunate consequence of the standard ‘nothing by mouth‘ pre-op protocol, but surely there must be some reasonable alternative to those dreadful 10 p.m. “snacks” you had.


  7. Hospital food – ugh. What do people expect? In Asia, we do not count on strangers to feed our family members who are in hospital, everybody knows you bring in favorites from home,these things also help patient get better faster.


    1. “A cold roast beef sandwich on doughy white bread” for heart patients is reason enough for ALL family and friends to bring in REAL food to hospital patients.


      1. A couple of years ago, I was in for colon cancer and gall bladder surgery. Every meal had some over spiced sauce on it, something called frozen desert, which tasted like semi frozen mashed potato and to this day, shivers run down my back when I see coloured jello cubes. The only way to tell tea from coffee was the colour of the cup. The nurses were wonderful but the rule is “if your little table has something on it (like a book) the food servers don’t have to leave a tray” so several people who couldn’t reach their tables to move tissue boxes or magazines.. didn’t get a tray left. As I couldn’t eat, meal substitutes like Boost were encouraged and I (at 61) found myself fibbing that I had eaten when I had slipped the stuff into my hubby’s pocket to dispose of.


        1. Amazing. Grown women feeling like they have to hide the fact that their hospital food is inedible! I sure hope your hubby was bringing you in healthy food from home.


  8. Hospital food is right up there with airline food – why wouldn’t everybody just pack a lunch? We cannot expect institutional food to compare at all with small-batch, individually prepared home cooking.


    1. We should expect hospital food to be good quality. Patients need more nutrients to mend and recover. They should be receiving fresh vegetables and fruits, and freshly cooked meats. There are lots of local farmers who would be more than happy to contribute to a local ecosystem for providing healthy foods to our infirm and long-term care patients. There are lots of dieticians out there who don’t have jobs…

      Let’s think outside the box and propose a new way to provide healthy, cost effective meals to those in hospital and long-term care facilities. If there is one hospital doing it, let’s study and model it and make it a new standard to take pride in each individual hospital and long-term care facility’s food service.


      1. There are in fact hospitals that DO participate in community-based programs. Click the link on the Plow To Plate website to read the terrific “Best Practices” article about the New Milford Hospital, for example!

        How many more years are we going to continue making bad jokes about hospital food? It doesn’t have to be this way.


  9. Oh, boy, I wish I’d thought of taking photos of every hospital meal served to me during my recent stay.

    Like you, I was shocked to see what the hospital considered appropriate to serve recovering heart bypass surgery survivors. After my third day, I asked my family to just start bringing in tupperware containers of fresh salads and fruits and homemade REAL food for me. My hospital roommate was also on a carb-restricted meal plan, yet almost every tray arrived with a big ice-cream scoop of pasty WHITE rice and a piece of white Wonder bread on the plate.


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