Nutrition & CancerPediatric Cancer

Nutrition Tips for Young Patients Facing Cancer

Maintaining good nutrition is especially important for children and young people who are still growing and developing. These recommendations will help them stay healthy and maintain good appetite while fighting cancer.
August 2021 Vol 7 No 4
Julie LG Lanford, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN
Cancer Services Wellness Director
Winston Salem, North Carolina

Maintaining good nutrition is important for anyone facing cancer, but is especially important for pediatric and young people, as their bodies are working hard to grow and develop, while also fighting off cancer and healing from treatment. Below are some key suggestions for young patients and for caregivers who support the kids in their lives who are facing a cancer diagnosis.

Key Recommendations

1. Avoid Malnutrition

When it comes to nutrition during cancer treatment, the primary concern is to avoid or prevent malnutrition. Nutrition status can be evaluated with lab tests (your doctor will be doing that), as well as by monitoring food intake, weight, and energy level. Making sure that young patients are eating regularly throughout the day, and getting plenty of calories and protein, is key to meeting energy and growth needs in young patients.

During the period of cancer treatment, if the quality of the foods is not the “healthiest,” that’s okay. Remember that our bodies are resilient, and what’s most important is getting enough calories and protein, no matter how.

If your child is having a hard time getting in enough calories or protein, here are some suggestions on creative ways to add extra:

  • Use whole milk in oatmeal or hot cereals instead of water
  • Add cheese or peanut butter to crackers
  • Make smoothies or milkshakes with peanut butter, sunflower butter, or whole milk Greek yogurt
  • Add butter to popcorn, soups, or on the bread in a sandwich
  • Allow desserts or sweets to provide extra calories and protein, by preparing them with added dry milk powder, evaporated milk, or calorie or protein powder recommended by your medical team.

2. Eat What You Can, When You Can

Avoid power struggles around food as much as possible. There’s already a lot of stress in the family just dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and adding more by fighting over food is not helpful. When a young patient feels like eating, optimize the intake at that time so that when he or she doesn’t feel like eating, there can be less pressure.

This may mean they are eating larger amounts of food at off times, or having dinner food for breakfast and breakfast food for dinner. Figure out what works for them, and work with it. Optimize the nutrition intake when the patient is most likely to feel like eating.

3. Focus on Fluids

Getting adequate hydration is important. Avoiding dehydration is even more important. Having something to drink throughout the day is a good strategy. If water isn’t palatable, try adding flavor to it with lemon or fruit. If something sweeter is desired, juice mixed with water can be flavorful, and can also help to increase energy intake.

Other ways to get fluids during the day are through “watery foods,” such as soups, fruits, popsicles, and smoothies.

4. Graze

Feeling full quickly is often a challenge to getting adequate calories and protein. Grazing on snacks and small meals throughout the day is a simple strategy to meet nutrition needs.

Have your child or teen eat something within an hour of waking, and then eat every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day. That way the patient can still meet the nutrient needs, even if he or she can’t tolerate a full meal.

5. Get Help and Support

You don’t have to do this alone. Lean on the patient’s treatment team and your friends and family to help. If you are not sure what your child’s nutrient needs are, ask for a consult with an oncology dietitian.

Maintain open communication with your dietitian or nurse for troubleshooting when challenges arise. If the challenges are related to behavior, a social worker or counselor can be helpful in guiding you in how to approach mealtimes.

Friends and family can be a big help in preparing foods. Keep a list of snacks or desserts that the patient loves to eat, and ask someone for help in stocking your cupboard and fridge.

Nutrition After Cancer Treatment

For some parents it can be hard to transition away from constantly encouraging your child to eat, and starting to trust that they will be able to regulate their hunger and fullness again on their own.

To encourage a good balance of nutrition and activity after treatment, it’s important to take note about how your child’s appetite is recovering. Sometimes medication can increase appetite, and some medications decrease appetite.

Try to stay tuned into this balance, without obsessing over it. When you feel that your child’s hunger and fullness cues are returning to a place that is healthy, the best kind of feeding relationship to have with your child is to use the following “division of responsibility” from Ellyn Satter.

The parent is responsible for:

  • What foods the child is offered
  • When the child is fed
  • Where the child is fed

The child is responsible for:

  • Whether to eat what is offered
  • How much they choose to eat.

General healthy eating information will apply for your growing child. Allow patients to experiment with foods as their tastes come back. Some foods that they didn’t like before may be tasty to them, and foods they liked before may no longer be their favorites.

Make it a fun family activity to experiment with new foods and recipes, and have the whole family do tasting experiments together as a way to bond and enjoy the freedom that eating after cancer treatment will present.

Key Points

  • The primary nutritional concern during cancer treatment is to avoid malnutrition
  • It is crucial for young patients to eat regularly throughout the day, and get plenty of calories and protein
  • Encourage your child to eat when he or she has an appetite and feels like eating
  • Having something to drink throughout the day is a good way to avoid dehydration. If water isn’t palatable, try adding flavor to it with lemon or fruit
  • It is perfectly normal that medication may increase or decrease appetite

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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