Preparing Meals for Cancer Patients – What to Know

When you have a friend or loved one battling cancer, it is common to wonder “what can I do to help?”.

Preparing a meal and delivering to their home is a wonderful way to show your care and concern for their entire family.  However, before taking meals to the family or preparing food for a cancer patient, here are some things you need to take into consideration.


A Critical First Step

Before even starting to prepare your first meal, the most commonly overlooked advice is sanitation. Cleanliness is absolutely critical when it comes to cancer patients because of how the immune system is affected by treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. Start your meal preparation by completely sanitizing your utensils, dishes, and prepping surfaces to avoid any chance of sending germs along with your prepared meal.

Some things to avoid

A piece of advice that is just as important as what to include in your meals is what to avoid. Chemotherapy and other forms of cancer treatment commonly affect the patient’s stomach among other areas of the GI tract, so preparing a meal without certain ingredients can help aid the treatment, and at the very least won’t contribute to any added damage.

There are a few types of foods to be careful about serving, and two types to completely avoid are acidic foods and heavy-texture foods.

Highly acidic foods that could negatively affect a cancer patient include but are not limited to grapefruit, pineapples, oranges, sugar, processed foods, lemons, limes, grapes, pomegranates, apples, tomatoes, sauerkraut, cabbage, broccoli, coffee, and sweeteners. Soda is not recommended, and neither is orange juice.

These high acid foods and drinks can cause acid reflux and make eating more difficult for the patient, and if there’s one thing you don’t want to happen, it’s your patient not wanting to eat. Another type of food that can cause a similar effect is spicy foods (like peppers), which will only cause added discomfort for the cancer patient, leading to a lessened desire to eat.

Texture-rich foods are difficult to consume and hard on the digestive system and should be avoided when possible. Especially during radiation and chemotherapy, it becomes difficult for cancer patients to swallow and consume food. Some refer to this as a rawness of the mouth and throat, which makes it much more difficult to consume tough-textured foods. Some of these heavy-texture foods to avoid include toasted bread, crackers, granola, raw vegetables, sweets, popcorn, fried foods, and overly processed foods.

Also consider avoiding gas-causing foods like beans, peppers, broccoli, legumes, and cucumbers, especially for post-operative patients, as their digestive systems have been compromised in a way that makes consuming these foods extremely discomforting.

Beef should be consumed only in small quantities and not as frequently as other meats, and you should never serve raw or undercooked food to a cancer patient, as well as foods and drinks that are unpasteurized. Consuming these foods and beverages could cause forms of food illnesses and poisoning which could make the patient weaker and less willing to eat.

To summarize what to avoid, do not serve highly acidic foods and drinks, spicy foods, red meat, raw or undercooked foods, unpasteurized foods and drinks, overly-processed foods, gas-causing foods, or texture-rich foods to cancer patients.

What Meals To Make

Nutrition is optimal for cancer patients, and it is important that you take nutritional value seriously when preparing your meals. Comfort food might sound appetizing to you, and maybe even to the patient, but what’s even more critical is the nutrients and specific ingredients you include in your dishes. Here are four nutritional tips to take into consideration, including examples of foods that you could include in your meals.

Protein is extremely important no matter what type of cancer the patient has. Protein will help tremendously in the healing process and will keep the patient strong through radiation and chemotherapy. Don’t underestimate the power of protein in your meals. Some high-protein foods you could try include chicken, fish, fully-cooked eggs (no runny yolk), beans (but not too much as to cause unwanted gas), cheese (softer cheese is better), pasteurized milk, and unsweetened yogurt.

Calories are a cancer patient’s best friend. Like protein, the more calories in a dish the better. You want to pack in the calories as much as you can, especially if it’s a dish your patient loves, as this will also contribute to strength upkeep during the whole process.

Vitamin C is another critical nutrient and a great choice for meals and snacks because vitamin C promotes wound healing. You might have thought to avoid this critical nutrient because of how acidic you think it can be. However, vitamin C doesn’t have to be acidic. While you should avoid acidic vitamin C foods and drinks like lemons, limes, and oranges, some forms of Vitamin C that aren’t as acidic include pears, cantaloupe, banana, sweet potatoes, cherries, and mango.

Iron is a must-have nutritional factor because when cancer patients go through chemotherapy, radiation, and other forms of disease therapy, they will commonly develop an iron deficiency. This can contribute to unwanted weakness and lethargy, and could cause more serious problems if it isn’t taken care of quickly. Beef and pork (when cooked fully) could be a good choice, but because of the rawness many patients feel in the mouth and throat, some better choices for iron include chicken and fish (salmon is very high in iron). Both chicken and fish have milder flavors and are much easier to chew because of their softer and less dense texture.

For Those Who Don’t Want To Eat

Although it can be extremely disheartening to hear that your loved one doesn’t want to eat, especially when it is so beneficial and crucial to the healing process, you must also realize how difficult it can be for some cancer patients to simply have the desire to eat.

A great way to get your patient to eat is to use appetite enhancing foods (and possibly medication). It is important for your patient to eat, so as long as it isn’t part of the list of foods to avoid, try giving them foods that they enjoy eating. Always have these foods on-hand and prepared ahead of time so if your loved one doesn’t feel like eating something you’ve prepared, you always have one or more of their favorites ready to go.

Take advantage of the patient’s favorite time to eat. If you find that your patient enjoys eating in the morning, make sure you have food prepared the night before. If they like eating in the afternoon after their daily walk (which is also a great appetite enhancer), make sure you have snacks and meals prepared for their favorite eating time of the day. If you are the caregiver to your patient, you can also talk with your doctor about possible medications that can enhance the patient’s desire to eat.

As a last resort, there is plenty of high-calorie, high-nutrition meal replacement drinks that include all of the necessary nutrients and protein needed to keep your loved one strong and healthy through this process. Ask your doctor for a recommendation on the different meal replacement protein drinks available to the public. You may need to go through a few brands before finding the one your patient loves, but it is something you should consider doing early in the process to avoid your loved one becoming weaker and sicker than they need to be.


One Last Tip

Variety is important. There will be times when your loved one just doesn’t want to eat, and there will be excuses (sometimes completely valid) for why they don’t feel like eating. When you have a variety of meals and options for your cancer patient, it gives them many more opportunities to consume even a little extra food, and as you’ve learned, calories and food intake are extremely important for your loved one.

By following these tips, you will be helping the patient get through this process, and you and your loved one will have an easier time getting through it together.


About the Author

When my best friend was diagnosed with Cancer, I wanted to give her a care package to let her know I was thinking of her. I was just guessing at what to include and I learned a lot about what can be both useful and meaningful to someone walking their cancer journey. My own frustration led me to start Help Them Fight to create a resource for others going through the same situation.