Some tips on preparing food for a cancer patient

So you want to prepare some food for a cancer patient?  This can present some unique challenges if you have never been through chemo yourself. If you have been through it, this will likely be a refresher for you.  I am very much in favor of someone preparing some meals but it is very important to follow some guidelines.

1.) WASH ALL PRODUCE BEFORE CUTTING IT.  Chemotherapy compromises the immune system so it is vital that all produce be washed thoroughly before cutting it. It should be washed with a food-safe wash (a vinegar and water combination works very well).  If produce is cut first and then washed, then the bacteria on the outside has already been spread to the inside by way of the knife and it is much harder to clean.  Many oncologists discourage their patients from eating raw produce due to the difficulty in cleaning it properly.  Even if it’s going to be cooked, it is very important that the produce is properly cleaned.  If you purchased ‘triple washed’ produce, wash it again.  That stuff is usually washed in some type of bleaching chemicals. Also, do not use ingredients from any sort of buffet (e.g., salad bar, olive bar, etc.) in meals meant for a chemo patient.  The sanitation is a very real concern and it’s not worth the risk.

2.) Prepare smaller meals.  Chemotherapy wreaks havoc on one’s appetite.  It is recommended by many oncologists that patients eat more frequent but smaller meals.  This helps to provide energy and helps to stave off nausea.  Rather than preparing a big tray of lasagna, prepare a couple of smaller pans instead.  This way, the patient can heat up a smaller portion.  I recommend this even if the patient has family because chemo messes with the taste buds and it is likely that not everyone will eat the same food in the house at the same time.  In addition, fatigue sets in the more chemo a patient has and a smaller pan is easier to carry and maneuver.  Honestly, my last two cycles of chemo wore me out so much that I couldn’t even carry my laptop.  My son had to put it in the car and when I got to work, I had to request help from co-workers to carry it inside.  A big casserole or lasagna would not have been an option for me to move from the freezer to the oven.

3.) If the chemo has deadened the taste buds, go for texture.  I chose toasted pecans, almonds, walnuts, and granola.  This gave me some sense of being able to discern something while eating.  Make a batch of homemade granola and package it in small containers or baggies.  If texture isn’t appealing, it may be helpful to include some type of acidic drizzle on the side like a zippy vinaigrette.  I would drizzle a bit of vinegar on top of my soup or sautéed vegetables so that I could taste a smidge of something.

4.) Be careful with spices.  I grew up in San Antonio so I always liked spicy food.  However, during chemo, I had to tone it way down even though I had trouble tasting food.  Spices were hard on my stomach so you may want to tone down the curry and jalapeños.  You can get creative and instead of adding them to the food item itself, maybe make a cracker or biscuit with a bit of spice in it that can be served on the side.  This way,  the person can break off a piece and if it doesn’t sit well, the entire meal isn’t a waste.

Some other tips to keep in mind:

Label everything.  List the ingredients and how to prepare it (temperature, time, etc.).  Even if seems logical that chicken noodle casserole has chicken and noodles in it, there may be other ingredients in it that may be a concern to the patient over time like some spices or garlic or even milk (chemo makes it hard for some people to break down milk products).  For me, I couldn’t stand peanut butter or chocolate.  I didn’t have an allergy but I really could not stand the taste of either and I had loved both prior to chemo.  And even though I’ve made lasagna all my life, my lasagna may not be made the same way you would make it. Spell it all out and how to warm it/cook it/prepare it.  This will also allow the caregivers who are cooking-challenged as well the kids to be able to help.

Think outside the box for meals:

  • Make a soup but deconstruct it if needed.  For example, make a broth-based soup.  Cook pasta separately, drain, and drizzle with olive oil to keep it from sticking together.  Package the cooked pasta in a ziploc baggie, put the soup in a separate container, and have some crostini or croutons in another baggie. (I mention broth-based to reiterate that milk may be a problem for the person undergoing chemo.)
  • Make the fixins for a burger quesadilla.  Stay with me here because this is actually fun and tasty.  Cook up the ground meat and/or veggies (no need to make patties).  Shred some cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.  Package the meat in one container, the toppings in another, and add a bag of tortillas.  All that needs to be done to prepare them is to warm up the meat/cooked veggies (the microwave will do just fine) and then load the tortilla with the ingredients, fold it in half, and cook it in a skillet on both sides until the cheese melts.  Everyone can fix it his/her own way.
  • Instead of making a big 3 lb meatloaf, make meatloaf muffins by cooking the meatloaf in muffin tins instead.  Make a batch of scalloped potatoes the same way.  Pop ’em out, put them on a baking sheet, and freeze as individuals.  They can then be placed in ziploc baggies and labeled accordingly.  Smaller portions are great and kids will love the smaller size, too.

Sweets are great in small doses. For me, I loved apple crisp because I could detect the slightest hint of cinnamon and the crunchy topping was great even though my taste buds were on the fritz thanks to Taxol.  Keep them small, e.g., smaller cookies or slices of pies/tarts. One of my gal pals made triple chocolate cookies with a cake mix and my son loved them so there’s no need to spend lots of time making things from scratch if that’s not your thing.

If you can afford it, please purchase organic and local food.  Organic is better for all of us and if it’s local, the food will be fresher and is oftentimes a much better quality than you will find in the big grocery stores.

Hydration and protein are very important.  Chemo is terrible on the kidneys and it also breaks down healthy cells so hydration and protein are important at every meal if possible.  Water tasted terrible to me but I found that a mild coconut water was tolerable.  If cooking isn’t your thing, buy some small boxes of coconut water or your patient’s beverage of choice.  Include some small protein-packed smoothies (Odwalla and Naked make some good ones) that can be kept in the refrigerator.

Lastly, I want to say how grateful I was to have food brought to my house. Several people pitched in and provided meals for us throughout my chemo  and having those meals ready to go with minimal prep was truly a blessing.  We preferred those to the heavily processed frozen foods in the grocery store.  Don’t ask for permission – just do it.  Whatever you decide to prepare or purchase will be very much appreciated by the patient and caregivers.

Charlie Brown

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