Expert advice

Legal advice: Can I eat leftover meals intended for patients?

Busy nurses unable to take a break may see no harm in eating spare meals allocated to patients, but they could be in breach of the Code, says Marc Cornock

Busy nurses unable to take a break may see no harm in eating spare meals allocated to patients, but they could be in breach of the Code, says Marc Cornock


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It is easy to see why this question is raised. Many nurses say they do not have time to take their breaks off the wards, and if the food is just going to be thrown away, what harm is there in you or your colleagues eating it?

It’s not as if you are depriving a patient of their food, just eating something that would otherwise go to waste.

However, by taking food from the patient’s food provision, you are taking something that is not yours. Strictly speaking, this could be seen as theft.

Professionalism and trust

If we were to take a Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) perspective on this, it would most likely come under the heading of promoting professionalism and trust. Section 20 of the NMC Code says nurses and midwives must ‘uphold the reputation of your profession at all times’, so this would apply.

Anything that detracts from your professional standing could result in an NMC investigation being instigated – taking something that does not belong to you while on duty would certainly fall into this category.

You could, however, eat the food without being accused of theft if you have permission to do so. If you have permission to take and eat any unused patient meals, it is hard to see how this could result in you being seen to be unprofessional.

Ask for permission

You therefore need to consult your line manager, explain the situation and ask for their authority. This may not be something they can authorise on their own and they may need to consult someone more senior, or examine the employer’s policy.

Until you have a clear answer either way, you should not consume any leftover patient meals.

If you are told that you may consume any unallocated meals, it would be professionally safe for you to do so. If you are told that you cannot eat the food then don’t, even if it will be wasted. To do otherwise would be risking your professional reputation and registration.


Marc Cornock is a qualified nurse, academic lawyer and senior lecturer at the Open University

Further information

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