Holiday foods often provide comfort for those with cancer

Holiday meals
Holiday meals may be a challenge for some cancer patients. Get help with these course-by-course recipes and tips to help plan your holiday meals.

The fall and winter holidays are meant to be times for good cheer, traditions, family and friends. But these days and weeks may often be filled with lengthy to-do lists and stress. There are travel plans to make, gifts to buy, decorations to hang and meals to prepare. For cancer patients, who may be slowed by the symptoms of their disease or the side effects of treatment, these tasks may be even more challenging. Holiday meals may especially be difficult to navigate because of treatment-related dietary restrictions or digestive issues.

”If you are undergoing treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy, or you are recovering from surgery, you may experience a loss of appetite or other side effects that may make it difficult to eat,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

But many foods that are traditional staples at holiday dinner tables—turkey, potatoes, yams, green beans, pumpkin pie—may also be go-to foods for cancer patients because they are generally mild, easier to digest and typically well tolerated. “These are comfort foods for many people,” Lammersfeld says. “So, for some patients who are struggling, the holidays are a time to be able to enjoy these meals and not sweat it too much.”

Many holiday foods also have high nutritional value. Turkey without the skin is low in fat and high in protein. Pumpkin and sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, potassium and fiber. Potatoes are a good source of vitamin C and potassium. “There are a lot of good things about traditional holiday meals,” Lammersfeld says. “Just try to prepare them a little healthier, with less added sugar, saturated fat and salt.”

The holidays also bring opportunities to experiment with new recipes and try new foods. “Maybe it’s time to try a meatless holiday meal,” Lammersfeld says. “Bring a dish to a holiday meal that introduces others to something that may be a little different. Maybe you are already making some lifestyle and food choice changes, so there are some opportunities to be creative and introduce some new traditions.”

Here is a course-by-course guide with recipes and tips to help you plan your holiday meals.

Cocktails or mocktails?

Cancer patients should consult their doctor about drinking alcohol during or immediately after treatment. “Generally, we advise patients on active treatment to avoid alcohol,” Lammersfeld says. “It has to be metabolized by enzymes in the liver, as are many of your medications. So, it can potentially aggravate side effects and interact with certain drugs. You really have to be careful.” Alcohol may irritate mouth sores caused by chemotherapy or contribute to gastrointestinal distress and dehydration.

Recipe: This cleansing cranberry cocktail is really a mocktail. With fresh fruit juice, aloe and ginger, it’s a refreshing alcohol-free libation that may also help soothe the stomach.

Tip: Try some sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice and a lime. “Mocktails are popular these days,” Lammersfeld says. “So, look for creative ways to make some good mocktails and enjoy them in a special glass so you feel like you’re participating in the party without consuming alcohol.”


Holiday dinner parties aren’t just about the main course. Soups, appetizers and other pre-meal nibbles may also be on the menu. But cancer patients should take care not to nibble too much on snacks before their healthy dinner is served. 

Recipes: Hummus and guacamole make tasty and healthy pre-meal snacks. For your first course at dinner, this carrot-ginger bisque offers a soothing taste of autumn. 

Tip: Try dipping into the hummus or guacamole with celery, carrots or cucumber slices rather than crackers or bread.

Main course

Few entrees say holiday dinner like roast turkey. “There is an emotional connection to certain foods and traditions people may have around foods during the holidays.” Lammersfeld says. “When you think about the holidays, you think about turkey.”

Recipe: This roast turkey breast will fill your kitchen with the aroma of Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey is well seasoned with thyme, tarragon and other fresh herbs.

Tips: Reduce the fat intake with your turkey by skipping the crispy skin. Also, let the gravy cool to allow the fat to rise to the top. And skim the fat off the gravy before reheating. “Fat delays stomach emptying and may  aggravate gastrointestinal side effects,” Lammersfeld says.

Side dishes

Potatoes, green beans, dressing and yams are staples at many holiday meals. Some cancer patients, especially those with gastrointestinal cancers or with digestive issues, may be advised to cut down on fiber during treatment or after colon surgery. This may mean steering clear of high-fiber cruciferous vegetables, like Brussel sprouts or broccoli, and avoiding potato and sweet potato skins.

 Recipes: These recipes for potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and dressing will fill your holiday table with healthy versions of traditional staples. And don't forget the cranberries.

Tips: Cut back on the butter and cream when preparing side dishes. If you want to add butter, do so at the table. “These holiday foods can be prepared healthier with less saturated fat and sugar,” Lammersfeld says.


What’s a holiday meal without a sweet ending? Lammersfeld suggests cancer patients look for desserts with less sugar and fat than usual offerings.Try fruit-based desserts or crustless pumpkin pie.

Recipe: Peaches can be found year-round, and this peach-yogurt panna cotta has a smooth, luxurious texture with fresh fruit and a few probiotics.

Tips: Look for recipes that offer healthy alternatives to old favorites. Consider making and bringing your own dessert to a dinner party.    

More holiday meal tips

Here’s more advice about holiday meals to consider:

Beware of bacteria. Make sure your food, especially meats, are fully cooked. Keep countertops, cutting boards and utensils clean to avoid cross contamination with raw meat. Wash your hands frequently.

Eat slowly. Make sure to chew your food. Chewing is part of the digestive process and helps the stomach and intestines better process food.

Indulge, but don’t overindulge. Keep portions reasonable and don’t overeat.

Bring a dish. If you are invited to dinner, bring a dish of something you know you can eat. This is also a chance to bring a non-traditional dish or to try a new and healthy twist on a holiday favorite.

Avoid spicy foods. Zesty foods may aggravate gastrointestinal symptoms and inflame mouth sores.

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