Nearly eight per cent of hospital meals are returned uneaten at a cost to the NHS of more than £22m a year, according to trusts’ figures.
Analysis of data returns suggests nine million meals - one in 12 - go back untouched every year across England.
The figures, from 200 NHS hospital and mental health trusts, found seven trusts have 20 per cent or more of all meals returned uneaten.
It comes ahead of a Care Quality Commission report published this Thursday which warns of poor NHS practice over nutrition for the elderly.
Of 100 hospitals investigated by the watchdog, 49 resulted in minor, moderate or major concerns about nutrition, with hospitals frequently clearing trays before people got a chance to eat and elderly people not given help with their meals.
Some hospitals were not adhering to a protected mealtimes policy, where time is set aside for patients to eat without interruption and when staff are dedicated to helping them.
Today’s data returns, examined by analysis specialist SSentif, found that Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust had the worst record, with 29 per cent of meals returned uneaten.
At Cornwall Partnership Foundation Trust, 27 per cent of meals are wasted, while 25 per cent go uneaten at the University Hospital of South Manchester Foundation Trust and 23 per cent in Birmingham Women’s Foundation Trust.
At the other end of the scale, fewer than 1 per cent of meals are returned uneaten at Buckinghamshire Healthcare Trust, Oxford Health Foundation Trust and Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals Trust.
The analysis further revealed a big difference in how much hospitals spend per patient, per day on food.
Top of the list is Kent and Medway and Social Care Partnership (a mental health and learning disability trust), which says it spends £38 per patient, per day. At the bottom is Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, which spends £5.86 per patient, per day.
The data suggests that high spend does not seem to equate with patients eating more meals.
Ipswich spends £34.40 per patient, per day but has the highest proportion of meals sent back, at a cost of around £2m a year.
Judy Aldred, managing director of SSentif, said: “The fact that trusts spending a generous amount on hospital meals still report high percentages of meals being returned untouched would seem to suggest that the issue is less one of food quality and is more closely linked to protected patient mealtimes - either they aren’t working or hospitals are failing to enforce them.”