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Pretty on the plate

Author: Diana Price

What did your most recent meal look like? Do you remember the way the food was arranged on the plate? What did the plate itself look like? Was it plain-Jane everyday or was it fine china? Were there flowers on the table? Did you drink from a can or from a glass? Did you feel excited to eat, or were you just going through the motions?

If you’re facing a cancer diagnosis or helping a loved one on the journey, chances are good that food presentation is the last thing on your mind. And yet, if you’re like many patients and those who care for them and you’re looking to each meal as a chance to help build strength and immunity, you may want to put some thought toward not just the food on the plate but the plate itself— and the rest of the table setting too.

Kalli Castille, MS, RD , CSO , LD, director of nutritional support and culinary at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA ) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that food presentation can often encourage patients to eat, which is critical because the nutrients from food play such an important role in healing. “With cancer,” Castille says, “your metabolism is functioning at an all-time high rate, creating the need for more nutrient-dense food to feed your immune system and fight the cancer.”

Unfortunately, many patients find themselves lacking appetite during treatment, making it difficult to get the required nutrients. When this occurs, Castille says, the first step should be to reach out to your care team about the many options for nutritional support: “If you feel you are forcing yourself to eat, or do not feel like eating, talk to your registered dietitian and physician.”

In addition, Castille says, this might be the time to focus on food presentation. “Presentation can change a person’s perception of the food and create a new experience for them.” When the food looks appealing and evokes a positive response, patients are more likely to choose to eat, thereby benefiting from the valuable nutrients the food provides. Castille says that at CTCA , Executive Chef Kenny Wagoner consistently reminds his team that “We eat with our eyes first. If the food does not look appealing, patients are less likely to try it.” To that end the CTCA staff works diligently to present food as appetizingly as possible, in the manner of a fine-dining establishment.

Jeffrey Horn, creative director and principal of Feature Presentations Ltd., an event production company based in Dallas, Texas, that produces grand events and intimate gatherings across the country, agrees with Castille. As someone whose job revolves around making things look beautiful, Horn has spent years—both in the event business and as a food stylist—creating enticing and memorable settings, and he knows the value of setting an appealing table. Horn has seen firsthand the difference that presentation can make in inspiring patients to eat well and enjoy the experience. “I’ve learned how hard it is to get patients to eat and how important it is for them to eat the right food and keep their nutritional stamina high,” he says.

Based on his conversations with dietitians and his own extensive experience, Horn offers several tips for presenting food in an appealing way:

Note the portion size. In making food look appealing, consider the overall size and appearance as well as the small details that might encourage someone to take a bite. “A big bowl of oatmeal with some fruit on it is a very different thing from a beautiful, smaller bowl of oatmeal on a pretty tray accompanied by some smaller bowls of fresh berries and nuts,” Horn says. Also, to make portions look less daunting, try placing the food on a bigger plate.

Evoke memories. Horn has noticed that many of the patients and families he has met are very focused on sharing quality time and memories. Mealtime can be a great opportunity to remind a patient of a favorite food, and it might just spark the appetite. Make a dish that evokes a happy childhood memory, bring out the special china or silver, or offer a special plate or bowl from childhood. “Try using Grandma’s china one day or bringing out some special silver that was a gift for your wedding,” Horn says. “Mealtime can be a wonderful opportunity to make things special and to create new memories.”

Nourish the soul and the body. Coming together to share a meal is a wonderful way to connect and to show someone they are cared for. If a patient is having a difficult time eating, bring friends and family together to share memories, talk, and offer support. “I firmly believe in the power of sitting together with people and having meals—in how powerful that can be spiritually and emotionally,” Horn says. “It feeds your soul in a lot of different ways. And if you’re enjoying yourself, you’ll likely eat more than you would sitting by yourself in front of the TV and eating off the same dinnerware you use every day.”

Remember the details. Sometimes it’s the small things that encourage someone to try a bite: a bud vase with a bloom from a garden at home, a cloth napkin with a special napkin ring, or a glass with ice instead of a can. Think about the little things that can inspire positive feelings about food and take the time to offer them to the patient. “When you can make food about more than just nutrition, it becomes interesting and palatable,” Horn says.

The importance of eating well during cancer treatment cannot be overstated; good nutrition is critical in maintaining strength and boosting immunity. If you are challenged by a lack of appetite, reach out to your care team and try some of the tips mentioned here. By focusing on the pleasurable experience of a meal beautifully presented, you may just be inspired to take a bite.

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