Eating in hospital

Eating in the hospital can be a problem if you're not feeling well and getting used to a different routine.

Weight loss in hospital

About 30 out of 100 people (30%) admitted to hospitals in the UK are at risk of malnutrition.

People who are most at risk of being malnourished are those:

  • older than 65, particularly if they are in a care home or nursing home or hospital
  • with long term conditions, such as diabetes, chronic lung problems or kidney problems
  • with chronic conditions like cancer or dementia that might get worse
  • who abuse drugs or alcohol

You usually have screening for the risk of malnutrition:

  • on admission to the hospital
  • during your stay

Mealtimes on the ward

It is not always easy to get used to the set mealtimes when staying in the hospital. You may feel sick, be away from the ward having tests or be asleep at mealtimes. This means that your food might get cold or you miss a meal.

It can be difficult to cope with eating when you are feeling very tired or ill, or have a drip in your arm.

Hospital wards can be very busy, and staff might not always be able to help with every meal. People who feel ill due to cancer or treatment often need help and encouragement to eat and drink.

Some hospitals serve food on a red tray for people who need help with eating. This helps to make sure that staff are aware if you need help.

Protected mealtimes

Many hospitals now make sure that you don't have tests or see the doctor during mealtimes. This is called protected mealtimes.

The aim is to help encourage people to eat well and enjoy their meals. It also helps the nurses to check and know what you eat. 

The only people on the ward during mealtimes should be those helping you to eat.

Hospital food quality

Unfortunately, the food in hospitals is not always to everyone's taste. There might be nothing you like, particularly if you don't feel well.

None of this helps if you are having problems with eating and are losing weight.

You should be able to choose a vegetarian or vegan option on the menu. Or a meal that is suitable for any cultural or religious requirements you have.

Some people find that these meal options are of better quality. They are often prepared individually and taste better. So choose a vegetarian or Indian food from your hospital menu and see if you prefer it.

Let the hospital administration know if you are not happy with your food.

Your relatives can also tell the ward staff that you are struggling to eat the food that is on offer. Most hospitals will try their best to meet your request for a meal that you'd like, but this is not always possible.

In 2019 the Government announced a review of hospital food. One of the aspects that the review will look at is how food can help you to recover faster. It will also look at the unique needs of vulnerable people.

Tips on eating better in hospital

  • Ask your nurse if your hospital provides a snack box. Many hospitals do, and it can help when you've missed a meal for any reason.
  • Ask relatives and friends to bring in snacks such as fruit, biscuits and dried fruit and nuts or nutritious drinks to have between meals. Always check with staff that nuts are permitted on the ward.
  • Go out to a local café or restaurant for a meal with relatives or friends if you feel well enough. Or eat together in the hospital café, as long as you have permission from the ward staff.

Going out for meals or getting take away food does cost money, and not everyone can afford to do this. But asking relatives to bring in food may be a cheaper way of getting something to eat that you like.

Check with your nurse before you have any food brought in. The hospital might have particular hygiene and safety policies that don’t allow this. You should also check with your nurse if you are on any special diet.

Last reviewed: 
07 Apr 2020
Next review due: 
07 Apr 2023
  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    Editors: Lisa Dougherty and Sara Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • Quality standard for nutrition support in adults (QS24)

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance, November 2012 

    Accessed April 2020

  • BAPEN Malnutrition Self-Screening Tool

    BAPEN (British Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition)

    Accessed April 2020

  • Hospital food review announced by government

    Department of Health and Social Care

    Accessed April 2020

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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