Holiday Eating Tips If You’re in Cancer Treatment

By Michele Szafranski, MS, RD, CSO, LDN


We all have wonderful food memories associated with the holidays. Maybe it is a favorite dish made by a loved one or a special memory of decorating cookies with your grandchildren. But during cancer treatment, visions of sugar plums may bring anxiety. When you are having trouble eating or keeping food down, the thought of holiday gatherings and meals can fill you with dread. There are a few things to keep in mind that might be help you get through these occasions with reduced stress.

Celebrating doesn’t have to be stressful

What can you do to make a holiday gathering less stressful? First, don’t be afraid to tell people you aren’t up to your usual celebration. Delegate if you are hosting the party. People always want to know what they can do, so give them specific dishes or tasks to take some of the pressure off.  If you have a dish you are known for, focus your energy on that one dish and let others take care of the rest. If you aren’t up to cooking, pass the beloved recipe to a friend or loved one for them to try.  Offer to bring drinks, paper goods, or the centerpiece for the holiday table. To avoid the hassle of a big entrance, arrive early and find a quiet spot to sit if you need to escape from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.

When it comes to the food, here are tips to help you find what and how much you can eat: [more]

  • Keep an eye on foods as they arrive and identify things you think you might be able to tolerate. 
  • Choose from the inside of the table at a buffet, where little hands, and their germs, are less likely to reach. 
  • Eat before you leave the house; try a snack with some fiber and protein just in case there aren’t many options for you. 
  • Start slow and take small portions so you don’t get that “overfull” feeling.
  • Ask your doctor if it is ok for you to drink alcohol before you go to holiday celebrations where you might be tempted to drink.
  • Look at a potluck as an opportunity to try new tastes and dishes, take advantage of the occasion to identify new flavors that might taste good to you.

Physical symptoms and what you can do

It’s no secret that holiday foods tend to be fatty, greasy, and heavy, and the scents of so much food at once can be overpowering.  If you have physical symptoms like nausea, constipation, or smell or taste changes, this can be unsettling to your system.If the sight or smell of food is enough to turn your stomach, grab a ginger ale or tea and move out of the area where food is being cooked or served. Try chewing a mint gum or drinking a hot beverage to mask the scent of food.  

Heavy foods can be overwhelming to a sensitive stomach. If this is the case for you, avoid anything in a cream sauce, gravy, or mayonnaise base. Cooks don’t tend to hold back at the holidays so unless someone tells you otherwise it is probably safe to assume everything was made with full-fat ingredients, which may cause indigestion. Look for baked or steamed items. And if you feel like your traditional family side dishes will be too rich for you, offer to prepare some basic fruit or vegetable side dishes. Foods like rice, potatoes, noodles, and bread can also be well tolerated if they aren’t in heavy or rich sauces. Turkey breast, cranberry sauce, green beans, roasted potatoes, and corn bread or yeast rolls can be simple enough items that shouldn’t upset a delicate stomach.

Be careful with food safety

If you’re in cancer treatment, you may have a weakened immune system, meaning it’s easier for you to get sick. Therefore, you have to be extra careful about food safety to avoid food-borne illness.

It is easy to lose track of how long leftovers have been sitting out or whether or not meats have been cooked to a proper internal temperature. So if your immune function is low, steer clear of undercooked foods like homemade eggnog, sushi, or even mayonnaise or desserts made with raw eggs (if in doubt don’t be afraid to ask the chef).

If you are at a potluck or buffet identify some safe foods– maybe cheese and crackers, salsa and chips, biscuits, snack mix, mixed nuts, cookies and cakes – that are able to sit out a little longer. You can also bring foods you know you can eat. For instance, if you are worried about how someone else might (or might not) wash their vegetables, offer to bring the veggie tray yourself. You can also bring extra serving utensils so people won’t feel tempted to use their hands.

The holidays are a special time, but for those in cancer treatment, there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty as well. When you just want comfort food but it’s out of your reach, that anxiety can worsen. But with a little thought, preparation, and the right approach, you can enjoy meals and time with your loved ones.

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