In Praise of Hospital Food - A patient perspective

A big part of my work as a keynote speaker and patient health advocate is challenging assumptions and cliches about healthcare. 

Another big part is expressing appreciation and gratitude for all the brilliant, hard-working people in our health system. 

Yesterday I got to do both of those things when I addressed a gathering of clinical services providers at Doltone House in Sydney. 

These are the people who run the teams of people who serve you food in hospital, provide your linens and change your sheets. 

[Notice I used the word "people" twice in that last sentence. That's what our health system overwhelmingly is. It's people. No-one else.] 

Now I seem to be a little unusual in that I don't hold the belief that relentlessly criticising the health system - and by extension the people who work in it - is the best way to fix it. 

In fact I believe that people are more likely to improve if they think they’re already doing some things well. 

That was what prompted me to open my speech yesterday with an unconventional appraisal of that much maligned substance: hospital food. 

What follows is the text of what I said. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the audio of what I said by clicking the link. 


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today. 

My name’s Luke Escombe, I’m a musician, comedian and health advocate and I thought I’d start my talk today by saying something that a lot of people in society would find absolutely shocking. 

I. Like. Hospital. Food. 

That’s right. I don’t just not mind it. I like it. I eat every bit of it. I’ve even be known to visit other people in hospital and bring them outside food so I can eat their hospital food. Sometimes I leave thank you notes on the plates and post about it on Facebook. 


Now I want you to understand, I haven’t had my sense of smell or my taste buds amputated. I know that hospital kitchens are unlikely to win any Michelin stars, or chef hats. I’m also not saying that the food couldn’t be better, or tastier, or more recognisable as food sometimes. 

But here’s the thing people need to understand about hospital food before they go around badmouthing it: hospitals aren’t restaurants. That’s the wrong comparison to make. 

They’re not hotels or airlines either. 

They’re hospitals. 

The food they serve is free. It’s humble. It’s delivered right to your bed. It’s food. Unlike most of the meals we make for ourselves at home, it usually covers all of the 5 basic food groups, which means it’s nutritious food. Even if the vegetables have often been boiled to death, they still show up on the plate. 

You get a little tub of pudding and an adorable little bottle of milk. 

And even though it’s not a restaurant, the lovely people who bring you the food drop by with a menu a few hours before, and you get to choose what you want to eat. This is important 

In a place where so much of what you do is regulated and monitored and controlled by other people and machines, you do at least get to pick what you want to eat, and you get the excitement, the suspense, of wondering when the food will arrive, who’ll bring it to you, what it will look like and if it will look anything like what you expected it to look like. 

That moment when dinner arrives at your bedside is one of the most exciting parts of the hospital day. There’s nothing else to look forward to after that. It’s like theatre. You savour every moment of it. The moderate delight when the food arrives, saying hello to the person who brings it to you, lifting the lid on each plate - yes, it’s food - waiting for it to cool down - sometimes for half an hour or more - then slowly, cautiously, mindfully taking each bite, feeling your body respond to perhaps the first mouthful of solid food in three days, feeling it respond to the heat, the texture, the energy, becoming aware of your teeth and your tongue and all the muscles involved in chewing and digesting doing their thing. Soup, main, bread, drink, pudding. The whole process. Knowing the person who brought it to you will return and say hello again as they take the tray away and then offer you a cup of tea with milk and sugar, and a biscuit. Maybe, if you’re really likely, more than one biscuit. 

And ah, each sweet milky sip, each crunchy, sugary bite - is a tiny morsel of heaven. 

What the naysayers, the detractors, the haters of hospital food don’t understand is, hospital food isn’t really even about the food, it’s about the feeling of being cared for. It’s an invitation, or for some people, a reminder, to be humble and grateful in the face of kindness. 

 So to everyone here involved in the preparation, cooking and service of hospital food, thank you, this guy for one appreciates what you do. 

[If you'd like to hear how the crowd reacted to my comments then please LISTEN to the audio]