What’s the one taste that chemo can’t change? Find out, along with five easy strategies to make meal times more enjoyable when you are struggling to eat because of chemotherapy or other treatments. 

As we’ve discussed, there can be many different eating-related side effects of chemo, including loss of appetite, nausea, change in taste, etc. Today, we’ll look at some easy strategies that we hope will improve your meal time, regarding not only the food but the social and lifestyle aspects of eating as well.

Strategies for meal times

1. Family as medicine

Food is so much more than the nutrients and yummy tastes. Food is an important part of our culture. Although you might be trying really hard to eat the best things at the same as time as dealing with unpleasant side effects of treatment – and deserve all the credit in the world for your efforts – try to keep the bigger picture of meals in mind: they’re a time to share; a gathering of loved ones around the table; a time for conversation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like eating, or if you need to eat something different from everyone else – try to focus on being with the people you care about, and the fact that you’re all together. 

As we discussed in the food temperature post, if you are having some nausea that is affected by smells of food, try to schedule your family meal to be a room temperature meal rather than a hot meal. Maybe the family can have their hot meal at lunch time and you all come together over a cold dinner? Or maybe dinner could be something that doesn’t have much smell.

However you arrange it, that meal time is a precious opportunity to check in with everyone else, and feel their love and support. Forget television or other electronics – it’s a time to chat. 

If you don’t have family with you, try some mindfulness eating strategies. There are recordings online on how to eat mindfully, and apps such as buddhify, which help you focus on the eating process and relax you while you are eating. Or put your favorite music on and enjoy the meal time without getting ‘stuck’ on the actual food.

2. and 3. Timing and size is everything

Meal frequency considered alongside portion size can make a big difference. Try switching from three meals a day to eating more frequently but smaller portions. If you are experiencing nausea, having a small amount of food in the stomach can help, so rather than eating three meals a day with an empty stomach in between, it might be better to have six small meals a day instead.  

In reality, those six small meals might be just a few bites, but that’s OK. Think of how the cows eat – they don’t have  three meals a day: they graze, and chew slowly. There’s no need to tie yourself to specific eating times, just nibble your way through the day. This might just be how you need to eat to get through your chemo.

Having a green smoothie that you can sip on throughout the day is great too. Put lots of leafy vegetables in there, some flax seed, healthy oils, a slice of avocado, and you can even add some of your medication/supplements in there too, if they are difficult to swallow. You’ll get all the benefits of them without the struggle of swallowing them. Just taking little sips of the smoothie can stimulate your appetite and also calm the digestion.

This nibbling approach might sound like it contradicts with point No.1 above, the “family as medicine” idea – but you can still sit at the table with family members and sip on your smoothie or take a few bites and enjoy their company.

Having food to nibble on throughout the day means that in order to be able to eat whenever the mood takes you, you need to have lots of different foods available 24/7. See No.4 below on getting help from others, but try to keep choices of meals and snacks in the fridge, already prepared.

If you are still working, make sure there is a fridge at work, or a cooler bag that you can also stock up with nourishing foods. Similarly, in the car. Plan ahead and buy a pretty cooler bag and thermos that you can take with you full of yummy drinks, soups, and foods. If you are staying at the hospital, you might well be in a situation where the food is awful and not what you want to eat. Have someone bring food to the hospital instead, with some disposable plates, cups, and utensils to make for easy clean up. The hospital cafeteria might have a microwave that you can use to warm things up.

If eating regularly-timed meals isn’t working for you, having small portions of a variety of foods ready and available can really help with this grazing approach. You can eat as little or as much as you want whenever you feel like it.

Timing is also important in relation to where in the chemo cycle you may be. At certain times after chemo, your appetite might be worse than others and you might not be able to eat much or face food at all. But after a few days, maybe portions can be increased as your appetite improves. Check back on Kathie’s post about juicing to see how she varied her juices depending on the stage of the chemo cycle, and this might give you some other ideas too with meals.

4. Accepting help

Creating a support team of family and friends can help you and your family make the best use of your time and energy. Try not to think of yourself as being a burden – friends love to show their support through food! There are online organizations that help with setting up support teams for cancer patients (I’ll blog about those another time), but sites like lotsahelpinghands help with the organization and scheduling. It’s great to have one key person – often a best friend or spouse – who you can share all your eating ideas, constraints, likes, and dislikes with. They can then relay the information to others who might want to cook items for you. This way, they will know what you are and are not eating and you can make sure that you are eating what you want to eat, not what someone else thinks you might want to eat.

It can sometimes get demoralizing for a spouse to spend time cooking for their partner, only to watch them not eat the food and for it go to waste. Similarly, the cancer patient can feel guilty for not eating something a spouse has lovingly prepared, but can’t help not feeling up for it. Another benefit of widening the circle of food preparers, is that it not only gets the smells out of the house to help with nausea, but it eases up on the responsibilities of the chef-caregiver role, giving family more time for other things together. 

The idea of support from friends around you can be very healing too. You can taste love in food. That’s a taste that’s never affected by chemo.♥

5. Gratitude

As we saw with “family as medicine” in point No.1, our food and meal times are far more than just good nutrients put together. By practicing gratitude for the meal time, the food, and everything involved in it, we take time to notice and reflect upon the things we are thankful for. This leads to experiencing more positive emotions, feeling more alive, having better sleep, and even stronger immune systems. 

The science of gratitude is impressive, with regular reflections on gratitude leading to increased well-being and quality of life. And it’s not just being grateful for momentous occasions that counts, but the little things in life as well.

Obviously our gratitudes can extend beyond meal times and food, but it is actually a good place to start. You can do this privately or share it with your family. Maybe family meal times can be a time to share your daily gratitudes, however small they maybe….the smile from a stranger in the street; the sunshine on a rose; the phone call from a friend. 

A couple of years ago my sister and I started recording our gratitudes in “100 days of happiness,” which ended up going on much longer than 100 days! Each day we reflected on something that we were grateful for, that made us happy. It was a powerful thing to do. Even if the day seemed to be a bad one, it encouraged us to look for positive things. 

So even if meal times are difficult for you, even if life seems really difficult right now, changing your focus can help tremendously. Think about what and who you are grateful for. One of my all time favorite sayings is

“You get more of what you focus on”

By focusing on gratitude and happiness, you notice it more and you get more.

I hope these simple strategies help you during your meal times, and beyond. Let me know what other strategies you and your family use.  

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