Approximately 60 per cent of UK patients aged 65 years or older are at risk of malnutrition or their situation worsening while in hospital. We report the results of a qualitative study embedded in research to prevent malnutrition in older people in hospital (the mappmal study). Our aim was to understand and describe processes that promote or inhibit nutrition in hospital. Throughout 2009 we examined meal services at four UK hospital sites across two regional locations, focusing on older patients admitted with dementia, for stroke or for fractured neck of femur. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with National Health Service staff (n = 54), stakeholders (n = 6), and a focus group with former patients and carers (n = 5). We identified ward-based food work as a technical and interpersonal challenge in narratives around malnutrition. Food work constituted two overlapping spheres of activity: interpersonal engagement through feeding assistance and reassurance and the arrangement of resources that facilitate meals such as the preparation of food trolleys. Our analysis is framed by the literature on emotional labour, dirty work and the professionalisation of nursing. We demonstrate how food work is overlooked by being conceptualised as common sense and as one of the most mundane and elementary tasks in hospitals.