Eat this, not that: Holiday meal and dining tips for cancer patients

Healthy holiday meals for cancer patients.
Healthy food for cancer patients can help make the holidays a fun and tasty experience.

The winter holiday season is here and with it the temptation to overindulge in your favorite special-occasion foods and drinks. Unfortunately, many traditional favorites tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt and may not be particularly healthy. And eating healthy foods is especially important for cancer patients whether you’re currently in treatment or a cancer survivor.

Healthy foods not only support your immune system, but eating well before, during and after treatment may also help you feel better, stay stronger, fight infection and maintain a healthy weight.

So, is it possible to indulge in savory turkey and stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes and rich pecan pie without adding unwanted pounds? Are there comfort foods cancer patients going through chemotherapy may enjoy without triggering side effects?

According to Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Care at City of Hope® Cancer Centers Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix, the answer is yes—with some caveats and modifications.

“Try to focus on nourishing your body with healthy foods, while balancing the comfort that may come from enjoying some of your holiday favorites with family and friends,” she says.

In this article, we’ll offer tips on how to avoid overeating at the holiday table and make healthier versions of some seasonal foods and drinks. We’ll also lay out ways chemotherapy patients may still enjoy holiday gatherings focused on food despite common side effects. Topics include:

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and are interested in a second opinion on your diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Healthy foods for cancer patients

It’s important for cancer patients to strike a balance between party foods, which tend to be high in salt and fat, and healthier fare such as lean proteins, fruits and vegetables.

“A good way to balance what you eat is to follow the 80-20 rule, where 80 percent of the foods and beverages you consume are nutritious and 20 percent are a little more indulgent,” she says. “Of course, 85-15 or 90-10 is even healthier, but may not be realistic for everyone.”

For cancer patients watching their weight, Lammersfeld offers these healthy suggestions:

  • Don’t go to holiday events hungry. Before you go, eat something small, such as fresh fruit or vegetable sticks with nut butter or yogurt. This strategy helps maintain blood sugar levels and curb cravings.
  • Use a salad plate, to encourage smaller portions. Fill most of your plate with plant-based foods.
  • Fill up on high-fiber foods first, such as salads and whole grains, to help curb your appetite.
  • Practice mindful eating, such as waiting 20 minutes before getting second helpings.
  • Mingle to reduce unconscious snacking.
  • Sip on water to keep yourself feeling full so you don’t overeat. 

Lammersfeld also offers the simple ingredient substitutions below for traditional high-fat recipes, including dips, bakery treats and cheeses. With just a few changes, you’ll enjoy healthier versions of your favorite foods.

  • Use two egg whites in place of one egg to reduce fat and cholesterol without losing the taste.
  • Use low-sodium, fat-free (or reduced-fat) chicken broth in mashed potatoes to add flavor and cut back on butter or margarine.
  • Substitute applesauce for oil, margarine or butter in muffins and breads.
  • Use fat-free (or reduced-fat) yogurt for dips, sauces and pie toppings.
  • Try sliced almonds for a crunchy topping, instead of fried onion rings.
  • Use reduced-fat or low-fat cheeses, such as mozzarella, for salads and casseroles.
  • Substitute vegetables or fruit for dipping, in place of crackers and chips.
  • Substitute fruit or fruit cobblers for desserts in place of sweets that are high in sugar and low in nutrients.

You may also want to try a few holiday recipe makeovers suggested by the Cancer Fighters® community. For a new taste-twist on a festive favorite, consider oven-roasted turkey breast or grilled chicken with fresh herbs. For a fresh side dish, swap out mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower with light sour cream to cut calories. For dessert, enjoy all the flavor and 75 percent less sugar with this recipe for not your traditional pecan pie.

If you’re a cancer patient experiencing treatment side effects, consider the following ideas to make holiday gatherings focused on food more palatable.

Eat smaller amounts more often. Taking in a small amount of food every two-to-three hours instead of eating three big meals a day may help calm your stomach. The smaller amounts also make it more manageable if you don’t feel like eating.

Enjoy what you can, freeze what you can’t. Some favorite holiday foods may be stored in the freezer to enjoy later when you’re feeling better. Sugar cookies and sweet potato casserole are two examples of holiday foods that may be frozen for several weeks.

Focus on the people. Don’t shy away from gatherings because you can’t enjoy the food. Being social and spending time with loved ones is critical to your mental health.

Comfort food for chemotherapy patients

For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment and losing weight, the holidays may be the time to indulge in comfort foods. Fluffy biscuits, creamy casseroles and soups, cheesy side dishes and ice cream desserts may be good options since soft foods with low-fiber content are easier to digest for chemotherapy patients. Eating high-calorie foods may also help your body take in the calories you need to get through treatment.

Food tips for combating chemotherapy side effects

If you’re experiencing any of the common side effects of chemotherapy listed below, consider the following ideas offered by Lammersfeld to combat them. These are general suggestions, so make sure to follow any modified diet that your care team has recommended for you, based on your type of cancer and/or treatment.

Loss of appetite

  • Support your energy and help prevent weight loss by eating spreads and dips like hummus, nut butters and avocado or guacamole.
  • Strong smells may hinder your appetite. Ask friends and family not to wear cologne and your host not to burn scented candles.
  • Request that more cold foods be served, which tend to be milder on the nose than cooked foods.


  • Stick with blander foods such as bread, potatoes, noodles, crackers, soups, vegetables and soft, tender meats that are not heavily sauced or seasoned.
  • Ask your host to use olive or canola oil instead of butter or margarine.
  • Ginger may help ease a queasy stomach, so consider bringing your own ginger tea, gum, chews or cookies.


  • Avoid caffeine, spicy foods and fatty, greasy or fried foods.
  • Stay away from foods with insoluble fiber. While this type of fiber promotes regularity, it may make diarrhea worse. Insoluble fiber is found in most raw vegetables and some whole grains, including whole wheat.
  • Choose foods with soluble fiber, including barley, oats, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, bananas, strawberries, beans, lentils and green beans, which are easier to digest.
  • Stay well-hydrated by sipping fluids between meals. Choose a sports drink or electrolyte beverage to help keep you hydrated, and your electrolytes balanced.

Sense of taste

  • Before eating, rinse your mouth with water or a rinse made with water, baking soda and salt to help clear your palate.
  • If you struggle with a metallic taste, eat with plastic utensils instead of silverware. And ask your host to cook foods in glass or ceramic pots and pans.
  • Bring your favorite sauce and/or beverage to the party, so you can eat or wash down food with something you know you’ll enjoy.

Mouth sores

  • Avoid citrus sauces and highly acidic foods like oranges, tomatoes, lemons or limes and spicy foods since they may cause burning.
  • Try soft foods and cooled-down soups that don’t require a lot of chewing.
  • Keep your mouth moist and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Try sucking on frozen fruits like grapes, melon, peach slices or ice chips, and use a lip moisturizer with vitamin E, which may help with healing.
  • Bring a nutritional shake with you so if you can’t eat or tolerate a lot of the foods available at your holiday meal, you’re still able to get the calories and protein you need. 
  • Talk to your medical oncologist about specialized mouthwashes that may ease the pain and help you heal.

It’s important to note that cancer patients may have weakened immune systems, which may make them more susceptible to foodborne illness. Since harmful bacteria multiply rapidly, don’t eat foods that haven’t been refrigerated below 40 degrees or have been sitting at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Healthy holiday meals for cancer patients.

Eat this, not that

At City of Hope, registered dietitians have compiled some suggestions (listed below) on holiday foods to enjoy and those to avoid for patients.

Eat this: Shrimp cocktail, Swedish meatballs or chicken satay.

These are high in protein and low in fat. For example, 10 shrimp with cocktail sauce pack just 120 calories and less than 1 gram of fat.

Not that: Mixed nuts.

Almonds and cashews are healthy and packed with protein, fiber and healthy fat. The problem comes when you eat more than the appropriate portion. One cup of mixed nuts has more than 800 calories and 70 grams of fat. Either skip the nuts or count out 15-20 pieces on your plate so you have a reasonable portion (approximately 150 calories).

Eat this: Salsa or bruschetta. 

These foods are low in calories. A quarter of a cup contains about 10 calories and zero grams of fat.

Not that: Spinach and artichoke dip.

This creamy dip weighs in at a whopping 300 calories and 19 grams of fat per portion. It’s usually eaten with bread or chips, which may easily add on another 150-200 calories.

Eat this: Veggies with hummus.

Veggies are packed with antioxidants, and hummus only has about 50 calories and three grams of fat per serving, making it a nutritious choice.

Not that: Veggies with ranch or blue cheese dressing.

Dips like these deliver a devastating 150 calories and 16 grams of fat per two tablespoons. You may consume 750 calories of dressing alone without realizing it.

Drink this, not that

Cancer patients undergoing treatment should talk with their doctors before partaking in any beverages with alcohol.

“Alcoholic drinks may interact with some cancer treatments and could potentially increase the risk of side effects,” Lammersfeld says. “Even drinking very small amounts may have a big impact.”

One important side effect of drinking alcohol is the risk of becoming dehydrated. If you don’t drink enough water with alcohol, you may become dehydrated quickly.

Even mild dehydration may cause symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, dry skin and constipation. If you become dehydrated, your cancer treatment may have to be delayed or your treatment dose adjusted, and patients with severe dehydration may have to be hospitalized.

Drink This: Mocktails

Sparkling water, caffeine-free herbal or spiced teas and a splash of fruit juice can make and delicious alcohol-free concoction.

Not That: Creamy coffee drinks, eggnog and alcoholic beverages.

If your holiday isn’t the same without a peppermint mocha, make sure it’s the smallest size and limit it to one serving: The 8-ounce version has 240 calories and 28 grams of sugar per cup. Perhaps even skip the whipped cream topping.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and are interested in a second opinion on your diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.