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Nutritional Needs for Kids with Cancer

Nutritional Needs for Kids with Cancer

Encouraging kids to eat healthy foods can be a challenge. Parents everywhere can identify with the struggle to make sure their children eat foods that will help them grow strong. When your child has cancer, the pressure is even greater.

Good nutrition is especially important for children who have cancer. Eating well can help these children keep up their strength while their bodies fight the cancer. It can boost their physical endurance as they go through treatment. It also helps keep their immune system pumped up to fight off infections. Plus, it just makes them feel better all around.

It’s often even more challenging to convince your sick child to eat. Your child may have symptoms that make food less appealing. Side effects from cancer treatment can also make it harder for them to eat, even when they want to eat. Your child may have these obstacles to good nutrition:

  • no appetite
  • trouble swallowing
  • food has no taste
  • tactile issues (food feels funny or yucky in their mouth)
  • nausea/diarrhea
  • mouth sores
  • trouble swallowing.

The good news is that it is possible to keep your child who has cancer eating healthy. You may have to be especially creative. You may have to try many strategies before finding one that works. You may even have to keep changing what works as your child’s possible side effects change. But as long as you can be flexible and patient, you can ensure that your child is getting the nutrition he or she needs.

Path to improved health

There is a lot to consider when planning the proper nutrition for your child who has cancer. It is completely normal to feel overwhelmed. Most likely, you are already trying to cope with a cancer diagnosis. You have been thrown into a new reality.

Even if your child is not suffering from any food aversions (disliking some foods) as a result of his or her cancer, it is a good time to boost nutrition with healthy foods. The more you can promote it now, the better your child will feel. Good nutrition will also keep him or her on track for normal growth and development.

A great first step may be meeting with a registered dietitian (RD). Your child’s doctor should be able to recommend an RD or one may already be part of your medical team. When you meet with the RD, prepare a list of what your child likes to eat now. If you are already seeing changes in your child’s eating habits, make a list of these, too.

Your doctor or RD will be able to provide you with the nutritional requirements of your child. He or she will also be able to teach you some methods for adapting recipes to help when your child does not feel like eating or is suffering side effects that make it harder to eat.

In general, children who have cancer need the same categories of food as a healthy child: protein, carbohydrates, fats, water and potentially other vitamins and minerals. However, your child may need more of these types of food. Your child’s diagnosis and level of activity will dictate how much to eat of the foods in these categories.


Protein is such an important part of your child’s nutrition. It helps the body grow, repairs tissues, replenishes blood cells and the immune system, and protects muscle mass. If your child is participating in cancer treatment, protein can help prevent infection and also help heal tissue.

There are many good sources of protein, including fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese), beans, soy, peanut butter (and other nut butters), nuts, and peas.


Carbohydrates have a bad reputation when it comes to eating healthy. This is largely undeserved. Your body needs healthy carbohydrates (think fruits and vegetables, not cakes and candy). Carbohydrates are really fuel for your body. They provide you with energy and also help your organs function normally.

Good sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pasta, cereal, potatoes, corn, rice, and bread.


Fats are a very necessary part of your child’s nutrition. Fats are another food category that suffers from bad press. This is mostly because there are some fats that are healthier than others (look for unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats). Fats perform several important functions: They are necessary for insulating your body (providing a protective interior layer), for helping your body store energy, and for delivering certain vitamins throughout your body.

You can find unsaturated fats in seafood, fish, olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, corn oil, peanut butter, nuts and avocados. Saturated fats are found in many snack foods and in fried foods.


Staying hydrated (getting enough liquid) is important for everyone, but is especially important when you are sick. If your child is vomiting or has diarrhea as a result of chemotherapy or radiation, it is very important that you monitor his or her hydration.

Water and other types of drinkable fluids play an important role in body function. In fact, your cells cannot function without it. It helps regulate body temperature (helps you sweat), it flushes toxins out of the body, it helps circulate nutrients, and even aids in your digestion.

Drinking liquids is one way to stay hydrated. Make sure you offer your child plenty of water throughout the day. Water should make up the majority of what your child drinks, but you can also offer juice to drink.

Food is another way to keep your body hydrated. Many fruits and vegetables contain water. Soups are another good option for upping daily hydration.

Try to make drinking water fun and don’t turn it into a fight. You may want to try adding flavor to water by infusing it with lemon or strawberries.


In addition to eating right, it may be necessary for your child to take a good dietary supplement (vitamin or mineral). Your child may need to drink special shakes to rehydrate and give his or her body the vitamins that it needs. Know that in some cases, children with cancer cannot take supplements because they interfere with some cancer medicines and treatments. Always ask your doctor before offering vitamins to your child. Your doctor will determine if they are safe.

Things to consider

When your child has cancer, you most likely will be faced with challenges getting him or her to eat. These challenges can be caused by the cancer itself or by cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Some challenges include:

  • Sores in mouth or sore throat caused by radiation.
    • Try serving your child ice cream, protein shakes, mashed potatoes, pudding, and eggs — soft foods that are not acidic or salty. If your child still is unable to eat, consider using a blender to puree foods and serve them with a straw.
  • Trouble swallowing.
    • Try the same strategies as those recommended for sores in mouth. If that doesn’t work, it’s possible that a speech therapist could work with your child on learning to swallow food.
  • No appetite.
    • Try to keep nutritious snacks around for when your child does feel hungry. Do not force your child to eat at mealtimes. This will only cause stress for both of you. Try to make mealtimes fun and serve your child’s favorite foods. If your child eats, express how happy you are that they are eating.
  • Changes in taste and smell.
    • Try to not cook any strong-smelling foods. Offer fresh fruits and vegetable instead of canned ones. Serve food at room temperature or cold. Offer your child smoothies or frozen fruits. Choose some foods that don’t need to be cooked.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
    • Try offering your child bland foods and plenty to drink. It is important to stay hydrated. Avoid rich or greasy foods. Instead, offer plain toast, cereal, crackers, or gelatin.
  • Constipation or diarrhea
    • If your child is constipated, try offering foods that contain a lot of fiber. Try raw fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, and cereals. Whole-grain breads are also good for constipation. If your child has diarrhea, offer plenty of water to keep him or her hydrated. Avoid high-fiber foods. Instead, offer your child bananas, rice, toast, applesauce and oatmeal.

If your child continues to have a problem eating, your doctor may recommend an alternative feeding method. Other ways your child can get the nutrients he or she needs is from a feeding tube or intravenously (directly into a blood vein).

If your child is on steroids as part of his or her cancer treatment, you may be more worried about an increase in appetite. Oftentimes, steroids make you hungry and thirsty. Unwanted weight gain can be the result. If this is the case, stock your cabinets with healthy foods. Offer more fruits and vegetables along with lean meats. Encourage your child to be active, if possible. This can help minimize unwanted weight gain.

When to see a doctor

Your child is probably already seeing a team of doctors on a regular basis. If at any time you feel your child is in danger of becoming dehydrated or suffering from a lack of nourishment, you should alert your doctor.

Questions for your doctor

  • Should I be alarmed if my child is not gaining any weight?
  • Should I be alarmed if my child is gaining too much weight?
  • How can I help manage my child’s food cravings?
  • Are there any foods that help relieve nausea?
  • How long can my child go without eating before it becomes unsafe?

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