Poor food quality has become the standard complaint of hospital patients. In the past, such complaints were rare. Hospital food in some ancient Islamic hospitals was to be of a quality suitable to feeding noblemen and even kings. If the medical treatment in other early hospitals has been questioned, few historians have doubted the benefits that food and rest offered to hospital patients.
While regional and seasonal variations existed, much of the quality also depended on who cooked the food. Historically, this has varied from monks in medieval hospitals to nurses, soldiers and porters’ wives in the 1700 and 1800s. In the 1700s hospital meals were generally divided into high and low diets, depending on whether a patient’s illness was the result of too much stimulation or depletion of the system. Most British hospital diets comprised bread, beef and beer. Amounts of alcohol in hospital diets declined in the 1800s. Other than potatoes, fruit and vegetables rarely appeared in patients’ diets. Additions frequently depended on donations, as well as the generosity of family and friends. Outside the west, families have traditionally provided food for patients. Much of it is even prepared in the hospital.
Hospital diets were more carefully considered in the 1900s with the rise of nutritional science. The preparation of food, however, remains a problem. In recent years surveys of hospital food have been conducted, including that of the NHS by Anglo-American television chef Loyd Grossman. Cost-cutting and the difficulties of catering to everyone’s tastes make it impossible to please everyone. The only relief for most people comes in the progressive shortening of patients’ hospital stays. While patients’ periods of hospitalisation in the early Victorian period averaged more than a month, most patients now spend days, rather than weeks, in hospital.
J H Warner, The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge and Identity in America, 1820-1885 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)
F Salmon, ‘ “But the patient remembers the food”: a new diet, a new hospital in 1930s Spain’, in The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), pp 259-287