One in three hospital patients is unhappy with the quality of food they receive, a UK-wide survey suggests.
Some patients were put off by the smell of hospital food
A quarter of the 1,000 patients questioned by consumer charity Which? said they had to rely on relatives to bring them something edible.
Patients described hot food being still frozen in the middle or completely congealed and stuck to the plate.
The government said it expected health trusts to meet guidelines on NHS nutritional standards.
Which? also surveyed 250 members of staff, 21% of whom admitted they would be unhappy to eat the food served to patients each day.
One patient described the food as "repulsive".
And others complained their dietary needs were not catered for, with poor vegetarian choices or a lack of knowledge about food allergies.
Around 38% of patients said meal times did not match when they were able, or wanted, to eat.
One woman said the meal in the evening was a pre-packaged sandwich which patients had to collect from the dining area, but no-one had told her when she was admitted, so there was nothing left for her to eat by the time she got there.
Earlier this year food critic Loyd Grossman, once drafted in to revamp NHS menus, accused ministers of failing to take hospital patients' nutrition seriously.
Mr Grossman was asked to head the government's £40 million Better Hospital Food Programme seven years ago.
He said there was no political commitment to improving hospital food.
Clare Corbett, health campaigner at Which?, said the results of the survey were similar to the results from 2006.
She said many patients were reluctant to complain because they did not think anything would change or were worried it would compromise their care.
"There are some examples of good practice but a third of patients said they weren't given the food they needed to get better.
"The Food Standards Agency has brought out some nutritional guidelines, but they are only guidelines, and the vital thing is the Department of Health needs to make sure they are actually implemented.
"Food is an essential aspect of making sure patients get better.
"We really need hospitals to act as beacons for healthy living and good nutrition," Ms Corbett added.
A Department of Health spokesperson said the DoH recognised good food was a priority issue and it was looking at how nutritional standards could be more fully implemented.
"We expect every trust to take their responsibilities on hospital food seriously and to make sure that hospitals meet the standards that patients rightly expect."
The spokesperson added that hospital food had improved in recent years and there were some excellent menus around but admitted that more needed to be done.
The chairwoman of the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, Sharon Grant, agreed with the DoH.
"There are some bright spots.
"There are some hospitals who are doing some very interesting work in trying to source local food, organic food, and to provide much more palatable meals, but there are still far too many hospitals where that's not the case."
But for lobby group Patient Concern the outlook was bleak.
Joyce Robins from the group said: "There are all sorts of initiatives but nothing changes - for one thing there is very little money spent on hospital food."