Upping the hospital food game

By Andrew Thomson*
Tuesday, 20 August, 2019

Upping the hospital food game

Harnessing culinary skills to improve the quality of hospital food can deliver cost savings and better quality of care.

Catering to hospital patients is a large part of quality of care.

There has been ongoing negative publicity about inedible food and its safety in hospitals which should be of concern to every hospital administrator.

Poor quality and unsafe hospital food gives rise to increased food wastage, budget pressures and longer hospital stays. When food does not meet patient expectations, an increasing number are using their mobile phone camera to post images to social media and media outlets. No hospital administrator needs negative media attention.

“Hospital food provides nourishment, aids recovery time and is something for a patient to look forward to during their recovery,” said Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian Anne Schneyder, from Nutrition Professionals Australia.

Good food AND good nutrition go hand in hand.

Schneyder said that many hospitals are already offering excellent food and food choices to their patients. However, providing the right food to the right person and ensuring that preferences, nutrition and dietary needs are met is a complex task. It is now well recognised that malnutrition and poor nutrition can independently increase risk of wounds and falls, increase mortality, length of stay and risk of readmission, and healthcare costs. It’s something the hospital administrators simply can’t ignore.

These are complex and layered issues for hospital administrators: quality of care, risk management, operational management, recruitment and selection processes and organisational training.


Respected industry consultant John Patison, from Redluob, said, “There is a real disconnect between hospital administrators and operational management and this results in hospital catering not receiving the attention and funding it deserves.”

Patison said Australian hospitals offer extensive and complex food choices which typically goes beyond feeding patients three meals and two snacks a day on an estimated budget of $14 per day per patient. This per patient food cost also includes labour, food safety compliance and operation of software programs and other materials. When comparing hospital food costs to a typical Hungry Jacks ‘dine-in’ meal, a hamburger, fries and soft drink are provided on a plastic tray for $12. Based on these figures alone, this suggests hospitals could do more.

With this amount of funding it’s no wonder bland and unappetising food is served to feed patients.


Recruiting skilled chefs to work in hospitals is a real challenge for the catering manager and hospital human resources as the focus for chefs is on gaining employment in restaurants and hotels. With current recruiting arrangements, hospitals are not attracting people who are passionate about making high-quality meals.

The problem is compounded further by a shortage of chefs in Australia. Similarly, attracting skilled catering assistants who can work in a fast-paced environment and support other team members is also of concern. What is becoming increasingly evident is the recruitment of catering team members with low levels of literacy and numeracy, many having English as a second language. This provides a real challenge for the catering manager in how to train and develop these people. Management need to be aware of their key responsibilities — e-learning is not the answer here.

Irrespective, hospitals must ensure they have sufficient and suitably trained employees to provide safe, high-quality and nutritionally prepared meals for every patient.

Skills training

Hospital chefs must be able to produce a variety of meals for patients with multiple health conditions. It requires specialised training which is not necessarily offered by most hospitals or registered training organisations.

Many hospital catering managers are still focused on generic compliance training approaches and overlook the importance of developing a chef’s culinary skills and catering assistants demonstrating portion control and food presentation skills.

No-one can argue that employees need a solid training program to perform their duties. A planned approach to training will ensure hospital catering operations strategically meet current and future business needs.

A well-trained and knowledgeable employee is not only the best insurance for a healthy operation, it also provides employees with information and skills that allow them to play a greater role. This type of training raises the status of the job, eliminates serious incidents, improves productivity and employee morale, and reduces turnover as they have a sense of ownership and belonging with their contribution being recognised. Employees that are not adequately trained cannot be expected to perform at the level required of them.

A fresh approach

A new way of thinking is required to provide long-term sustainable solutions.

1. It’s important the modern manager shares their overall business strategy with their catering team because it provides an insight into their perspective and intended goals and direction.

2. There is an increasing number of secondary school students undertaking vocational education and training in commercial cookery and hospitality. Here is an opportunity for hospitals to examine the education and employment pathways to transition high school students who would consider making a difference in the healthcare setting. It is also a lifestyle choice.

The involvement of home economics and food technology teachers is required as they are at the forefront of student education. In regional and remote areas there is a strong role for regional development authorities to collaborate with local hospitals and schools.

3. Having an industry-wide mentoring program would positively influence and provide guidance for chefs to develop a range of skills, better understand and correctly use equipment and software programs, improve culinary skills and to share ideas. The Inspired Series created by Sydney chef Luke Mangan in partnership with TAFE NSW involves Australia’s leading chefs. The Australian Culinary Federation has its own mentoring program. There are lessons to be learned from these mentoring programs.

It is time for hospital administrators to acknowledge that food and good nutrition is an important component of patient care and provide appropriate resourcing and employee training. There should be the setting of and ongoing monitoring of key business and food-related performance indicators to enable improvements. New and innovative thinking is required. There is a range of other strategic options, but all of this requires great will of all concerned to make a difference. One thing is certain, any improvements mentioned will provide real cost savings and quality of care for hospital administrators.

*Andrew Thomson is Director of Think ST Solutions, a training and consultancy business offering practical solutions to the food industry, specialising in aged-care and healthcare facilities. Thomson is a board member of not-for-profit community food service operation Nonna’s Cucina. Visit www.thinkstsolutions.com.au.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/135pixels

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