Good nutrition is an important part of any cancer treatment plan. Individuals with cancer need more calories and protein than the general population to maintain strength and muscle mass.
But it can be a struggle to eat enough during cancer treatment. Many people find that their appetite is reduced due to stress and worry about their diagnosis. Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can also decrease a person’s desire or ability to eat, with common side effects including nausea, taste changes, or sensitivity to smells. Even the location of the cancer can be a factor — for example, a large tumor near the stomach or in the esophagus may reduce the amount a person can eat.
For these reasons, many people undergoing treatment find that having several small meals (instead of 3 regular-sized meals) throughout the day helps them maintain their normal amount of eating.
Try these simple strategies to get enough calories and protein in smaller volumes:
Eat little and often
When someone is feeling unwell, the sight of a big meal can kill their appetite. Instead of focusing on eating three squares per day, aim to have four-to-six small meals, spaced out throughout the day. Serving meals on side plates instead of normal dinner plates can also make meals look less overwhelming.
Eat on a schedule
If you find that you have no appetite at all, it can be easier to eat by the clock and aim to have something at designated times throughout the day. Alternatively, you may find it more helpful to “graze” on high-calorie snacks such as nuts, crackers, cheese, or dried fruit throughout the day.
Be mindful of fluids
It is important to stay hydrated during cancer treatment, particularly if you are having side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea. Be sure to sip fluids throughout the day, but try to avoid drinking liquid at mealtimes, which may fill you up. Consider sipping on nourishing drinks such as milk, milkshakes, or smoothies between meals, which will provide extra calories and nutrition.
Eat when you’re able
Try to have your largest meal at the time when your appetite is at its peak, such as in the morning, and have small meals thereafter. Whenever you feel most hungry, take advantage and eat then.
Fortify your foods
When eating small amounts of food, try to maximize the calories and nutrition in each mini-meal. For example, if you are struggling to maintain your weight, using full-fat dairy products will add extra calories. Other strategies including adding extra butter, cream, and oils to foods. This may go against what we know as a “healthy” diet, but maintaining weight during treatment is associated with better outcomes. If you are maintaining your normal weight during treatment, there is no need to add extra fat and calories, as weight gain during treatment should also be avoided unless advised to do so by your doctor or dietitian.
Use your time wisely
When feeling fatigued from cancer treatment, the act of cooking can be so tiring that it can be difficult to eat by the time the meal is ready. Try cooking larger meals when feeling better, then divide them up and freeze for use on days when you are feeling more tired.
Speak to your medical team
Your medical team should be made aware of any problems you are having with food intake or weight changes. There are medications which can help to stimulate your appetite, if needed. Your dietitian will also be able to recommend foods or recipes that will give you plenty of nutrition in smaller volumes, plus we have 200+ nourishing recipes in our small meals category.
These tips apply to anyone who is struggling to consume enough food. If you have issues with food volumes due to surgical intervention (e.g. gastric cancer removal), you will require more specialist advice from your doctor or dietitian.
Small Plates for Small Appetites
Here are some of our best nutrient-rich, full meal recipes that scale down easily or can be prepped and enjoyed over a longer period of time.