Hospital Food Could Be So Much Better Than It Is

CC BY 2.0. Flickr/JohnSeb

Food can either help or hinder a patient's recovery, which is why hospitals should reconsider their approach.

Hear the phrase 'hospital food' and your thoughts probably turn to mental images of reconstituted mashed potatoes, unidentifiable grey meat, soft vegetables, jello, and little cups of syrupy orange juice. It is all swathed in plastic and it is all gross, hardly the stuff with which to nourish a sick or healing body.

Even if taste isn't taken into consideration – which it really should be – this system needs to change in order to improve nutritional value and to reduce food waste. André Picard argued recently in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail that as much as half of all the food served in Canadian hospitals goes uneaten and ends up in the trash.

"When you consider that Canadian hospitals serve roughly 275,000 meals daily and spend in excess of $4-billion on food services annually, that level of waste is almost as stomach-turning as the food itself."

Then there is the lack of nutrients. Yoni Freedhoff, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, gave the example of his own father, who was fed ultra-processed, pre-packaged foods while in hospital and, despite never having had diabetes, developed blood sugar problems requiring medication; the problems disappeared once discharged and his diet was able to improve.

Picard recognizes that hospital food is notoriously terrible because of budgetary restraints. The average daily allowance per patient is $8-9, and it's next to impossible to eat well on such a pittance. But that allowance is also the result of a medical system that does not view food as being crucial to healing. He writes,

"The sea change that needs to occur is largely a philosophical one. Hospitals and health-care providers need to view food as part of the healing process and the patient experience... Hospitals should be places of healing and not just medico-surgical factories."

It's time for a new approach, one that invests in menus, fresh ingredients, and well-equipped kitchens. Although the upfront investment may seem daunting, I suspect that there would be tremendous gains thanks to shortened hospital stays, quicker recoveries, and far less waste to be dealt with.