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Nutrition tips for children during cancer treatment

You’re probably aware that nutrition plays a huge part in a child’s overall health and wellbeing at any stage of their lives. However, did you know that nutrition may also help your child to better tolerate their cancer treatment, fight infection and assist with their recovery?

Here’s what the experts have to say about the best way to approach nutrition during a child’s cancer treatment.

First of all, consider arming yourself with a support network. That way you will have a range of advice, knowledge and tips to choose from based on what works best for you and your family.

The American Cancer Society echoes this sentiment:

“Each child with cancer has their own nutrition needs. Talk to the health care team any time you have concerns about how much your child has been eating or drinking. Your doctor, nurse, dietitian … can work with you to figure out your child’s needs and come up with an eating plan.”

Children can be picky eaters and when they undergo treatment this can escalate – with good reason. According to the Cancer Council, chemotherapy can damage tastebuds both during and after treatment.

“After chemotherapy, tastebuds begin to grow back quickly and this can confuse the taste processing centre in the brain, causing a change in the taste experience.”

Due to this change a common complaint is that the texture of food feels rough or like cardboard. Having said that, when it comes to taste, every child will have a unique experience about what foods they like or don’t like.

If your child says their food is boring you can literally spice it up with fresh herbs, honey or soy. However, the Children’s Blood and Cancer Centre reports many children find their food tastes too strong, in which case you could try only offering very simple food such as crackers, plain pasta or cereal.

If food is too salty, the Cancer Council suggests offering “white cheeses, such as mozzarella, cream cheese, fresh pecorino or ricotta cheese, instead of highly processed cheese slices or tasty cheese. Try roast meats in sandwiches instead of processed meats such as cured ham or salami.”

For bitter and metallic tastes, opt for moist fruit such as berries or melon and offer small sips of flavoured drinks.

Radiotherapy, chemotherapy medicine and painkillers can all cause a dry mouth. A dry mouth can mean an increased risk of getting mouth infections such as oral thrush and tooth decay.

The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group recommend you ask your treating team about mouthwashes or medications to help lower the risk of thrush. They also suggest you offer soft foods with sauces or creamy textures such as custards and gravies, and cut out any dry or chewy foods like bread and chocolate.

Also, “sips of cool drinks to help moisten your child’s mouth … Crushed ice, ice-lollies, or flavoured ice cubes to suck can help.”

The Children’s Blood and Cancer Centre also advises that children “undergoing treatment for cancer have higher than normal calorie and protein needs, which help in the healing process.”

Unfortunately, because your child’s tastebuds can change, your child may go off meat – a protein powerhouse. If your child refuses to eat meat, you don’t have to force them. Instead the Cancer Council recommends trying alternative protein sources such as cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, baked beans, kidney beans, lentils or chickpeas.

The National Cancer Institute suggests serving carrots with hummus and cut up apple with peanut butter as well as buying protein-fortified milk products – you can even make your child milkshakes with ice-cream as a special treat! They also advise adding “extra eggs or egg whites to custard, puddings, quiches, scrambled eggs, omelettes, pancake or French toast batter.”

Also, when choosing foods, the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group notes to avoid any diet or low-fat foods and instead to keep an eye out for foods with labels such as full fat or “thick and creamy”.

Nausea is a big obstacle when it comes to eating well during cancer treatment. Healthcare provider Dell Children’s suggests reducing smells and using plastic cutlery:

“To reduce ambient food smells in your home, prepare a day’s worth of meals beforehand and store them in a freezer or refrigerator for quick heating later … To reduce metallic taste, substitute plastic flatware for metal, and stick to plastic or glass plates, bowls and cups.”

Nutrition can also help with side effects such as fatigue during cancer treatment. Firstly, try and cut out any sugary foods. These may give a quick burst of energy but the end result will be a slump that leaves them even more drained.

Secondly, try adding protein, fat, and fibre to meals and snacks to help keep blood-sugar levels more stable with a more sustained feeling of energy. You could try a piece of fruit with a small handful of nuts or cottage cheese.

Unfortunately, chemotherapy can cause both constipation and diarrhoea which means you probably have to track bowel movements.

If your child is constipated, Cancer Australia suggests you can try adding fibre to their diet with “whole-grain breads and cereals, raw fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, beans, and nuts. Drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day, eating at regular times, and increasing physical activity can also help relieve constipation.”

If your child is experiencing diarrhoea, the National Cancer Institute advises cutting out sugary drinks, milk products, chocolate, chewing gum, high-density fibre foods, cooked dried beans, chocolate, very hot or very cold drinks, greasy/fatty/fried foods, and raw fruits and vegetables.

Time in hospital means a change of routine. It’s common to see an increase in fussy behaviour, tantrums, or outright food refusal. This can be stressful for everyone involved.

If your child is acting this way, the last thing you probably feel like doing is playing games. However, adding a bit of fun to mealtimes might actually work!

The Paediatric Integrated Cancer Service (PICS) advises to “tempt your child with novelties like fancy drinking straws, decorated cups and plates, or try cutting vegetables and sandwiches in various shapes.”

Nutrition tips for kids during cancer

This infographic by Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group has some great ideas on how to make eating more enjoyable

Also, please go easy on yourself and remember that it’s okay to be flexible and cut corners while your child is in hospital. It won’t cause any harm if you serve Weet-bix for dinner or pasta for breakfast if it makes everyone feel happy and calm.

And keep in mind, Paediatric Integrated Cancer Service (PICS) also reports that most “children are able to balance the amount of food or energy their body needs if offered nutritious foods regularly and if they are not forced to finish everything on the plate. This means that if only a little is eaten at one meal, they will probably catch up with a bigger meal or snack later.”

At the end of the day, all you can do is try your best. And remember, always speak with your treating team about your child’s specific nutrition needs or any concerns that you have – that’s what they’re there for!

For more information, Cancer Advisor has a range of resources on nutrition, but we’re always looking for more content. Leave a comment below, share your own story or recommend a resource.

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