Don’t Let Cancer Derail Dinner

Find the time—or ask a friend—to prepare healthy meals in spite of cancer.

By Laurie Wertich

With or without cancer, managing family life today is often a juggling act. Between soccer practice, piano lessons, carpools, homework, laundry, grocery shopping, and cleaning, it can be difficult to find time to prepare healthy dinners. Throw cancer treatment into the schedule, and meal planning becomes even more of a challenge.

When one family member is diagnosed with cancer, the entire family is struck by the disease. Most cancer survivors will attest, however, that once the initial shock of the diagnosis wears off, that pile of laundry still needs to be washed and hungry kids still need to be fed.

How do you juggle cancer treatment and still manage to get dinner on the table? It’s not easy, but it is possible with a little planning. In other words, the best defense is a good offense.

Keep It Healthy

Because your family has been touched by cancer, you’re likely more focused than ever on choosing healthy foods. But with the plethora of information (and misinformation) out there, it can be overwhelming and difficult to discern the health from the hype.

Don’t despair. Just follow the simplest rule of healthy eating: eat real food—you know, the kind that occurs in nature. Potatoes? Yes. Fresh fruit? Absolutely. Whole grains? You bet. That box of chicken-flavored crackers? Not so much.

This is a time to get back to the basics. Daniella Chace, MS, CN, a certified nutritionist and the author of several cancer nutrition books including The What to Eat If You Have Cancer Cookbook, suggests eating food in its most natural form and avoiding refined and highly processed foods. In addition, strive for a wide variety, ensuring that you are getting the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that your body needs.

When you walk the aisles of the grocery store, do so with these guidelines in mind: Shop the perimeter, where you’ll find fresh produce and natural foods. Reach for whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice instead of refined and processed foods such as white flour, chips, and other boxed items. Fill your basket with fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, organic dairy products, and lean meats or fish.

If you’re battling cancer, Chace says, you may also want to increase your protein intake. “Protein is necessary for healing and providing the essential amino acids for optimal immune function,” she explains. Protein helps repair body tissue, strengthen the immune system, and ensure growth. Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, dairy products, lean meat, nuts, and legumes. Chace suggests also incorporating protein powder, which is easy to digest and can be added to a smoothie.

Be Prepared

So now you know what to eat, but how can you make the time to create all these healthy meals? Sunday afternoons can be a great time to plan ahead to ensure that you and your family eat well for the week. Spend a few hours preparing, and weeknight meals will come together quickly. Try these strategies to help you make the most of your time:

  • Start by making a menu and a grocery list for the week. This will not only help you prepare but also allow you to see if you are meeting your nutritional needs. Be sure to include a variety of choices from different food groups.
  • That first hour home from the grocery store is your window of opportunity. Before you put away the carrots and the celery, how about washing and chopping them up so that they are ready for a grab-and-go snack?
  • Take the time to make as many components of upcoming dinners as you can. For example, brown rice is a delicious and healthy addition to many meals, but it takes almost an hour to cook and not many kids can wait that long for dinner to be ready. Instead, make a large pot of brown rice on Sunday afternoon and keep it in the refrigerator to use throughout the week. That way the base of your meal will be ready and you can build around it.
  • If possible, make meals ahead of time that you can throw in the oven after a long day, such as lasagna or enchiladas. While you’re at it, make two and freeze one to use later.

Keep It Simple

Meals do not have to be elaborate gourmet events to be delicious and healthy. Use simple ingredients and keep it basic. A crock-pot is a great tool for preparing quick, easy meals that are also packed with nutrients. Throw some fresh veggies, potatoes, broth, and lean red meat into the crock-pot as you leave in the morning and come home to a delicious and nutritious stew.

Think outside the box. Cancer treatment, busy schedules, and picky eaters can make it hard to plan sit-down meals. When it’s not possible to gather at the table, something fast and nutritious, like a smoothie, might be the best option. “Smoothies are an easy and quick way to provide a nutrient-dense meal for a child,” Chace says. “Even the most finicky eaters will drink a protein shake or smoothie.”

Enjoy!

Remember, gathering together as a family and enjoying healthy food is a pleasure and a blessing. A shared meal that provides your family with the nutrition you all need and allows you to spend time together is an opportunity to fuel your body and your spirit.

If You’re Not Able to Cook for Yourself

If your treatment has you sidelined and unable to devote energy to cooking, hand this information off to your caregiver or to friends and family members who want to help. They’ll be glad you asked, and you’ll be able to rest and know that your family is eating well.

  • Make a list of food allergies, likes, and dislikes so that friends dropping off meals can be sure to include foods your family will eat.
  • Make a master grocery list and ask friends or family to shop for you.
  • Put someone in charge. Often one friend can create a master calendar and coordinate meal deliveries. A little planning and communication will ensure that you don’t receive six tuna casseroles in a row.
  • Ask friends to drop off meals that can be easily frozen.
  • Ask people to drop off perishable items that have been washed and chopped so that you can easily grab healthy snacks.
  • Provide recipes. If you don’t have the energy to make your kids’ favorite dish, don’t be shy—share the recipe with a friend. They’ll be happy to know how to help.
  • Ask for single servings of things that can be used for healthy lunches for you or to go in your child’s lunchbox.

Nutritious Grab-and-go Snacks

  • Celery sticks and almond butter
  • Carrot sticks and hummus
  • Apple slices and peanut butter
  • Grapes
  • Trail mix
  • Granola bars
  • Hard-cooked eggs

Healthy Alternatives When You’re On the Go

If you’re tempted to: Try this instead:
Swing through the drive-thru at a local fast-food joint. Swing through the grocery store instead. Most stores have a salad bar filled with healthy options. Those few extra minutes will be well spent.
Order pizza. In the 20 minutes it takes for that pizza to arrive, you could make your own healthy alternative. Use a whole-wheat tortilla as the crust and top with sauce, fresh veggies, and a little cheese.
Pop in a toaster pastry. Blend a smoothie. Mix a liquid (such as juice, soy milk, or water) with frozen fruit and protein powder and you have a delicious, nutritious, and quick meal.

 

Recipes

Minestrone Soup

From The Cancer Nutrition Center Handbook by Carolyn Katzin, MSPH, CNS

1 cup white beans, soaked
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 medium carrots, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
8 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon rosemary
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon marjoram
½ cup cooked pasta shells
½ cup frozen chopped green beans
½ cup frozen green peas

Rinse the beans and boil for 20 minutes. Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet and sauté the onion and garlic for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and green pepper and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Add the herbs, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the pasta shells, green beans, and peas and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Granola Bars
From The What to Eat If You Have Cancer Cookbook by Daniela Chace

½ cup honey
½ cup barley malt syrup
2 cups oats
1 cup chopped walnuts
¾ cup chopped almonds
⅓ cup flaxseeds
¼ cup sunflower seeds
¾ cup raisins
¾ cup dried cherries
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350º. In a medium saucepan, combine honey and barley malt syrup and cook at a low boil for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the rest of the ingredients. Mix well.

Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with waxed paper and pour in the mixture, making sure it is evenly distributed across the pan. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool for 30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.