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“Meal realities” – An ethnographic exploration of hospital mealtime environment and practice

11 Oct 2017


To explore and understand patterns of mealtime culture, environment and social practice from the perspective of staff, volunteers and visitors on the hospital ward.


Inadequate food intake is a common and complex problem in hospital and can lead to malnutrition. Mealtime interventions have been implemented to address this problem with limited success. A better understanding of mealtime environment and practice is needed to ascertain which interventions are more likely to be effective in addressing inadequate food intake in hospital.


A qualitative, ethnographic approach was used to promote a comprehensive understanding of mealtime environment and practice.


Sixty-seven hours of fieldwork was conducted August-October 2015. More than 150 participants were observed and 61 unique participants were interviewed in 75 interviews. Data analysis followed an inductive, thematic approach, informed by systems and complexity theory.


Themes of “patient centredness” and “system” and their disharmonious interrelationship emerged. Staff, volunteers and visitors strive for patient centredness at mealtimes. The routine and structured nature of the meal and care systems was constantly in tension with providing patients the care they needed.


The findings of this study expose the challenges associated with maintaining patient centredness at mealtimes in complex healthcare and foodservice systems. This facilitates a better understanding of why inadequate food intake is difficult to address in the hospital setting and highlights the need to support strategies that approach foodservice processes and nutritional care as complex and non-linear.

This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Journal of Advanced Nursing

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