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Nutrition and Childhood Cancer
Healthy Strategies

Good nutrition is important for all children. A child with a cancer diagnosis may have additional nutritional needs or challenges.

Children develop eating habits early in life and carry these habits into adulthood. All children should learn how to make good food choices. You can use the following strategies to teach your children healthy eating habits:

Be a role model. One of the best things you can do to teach your child good nutrition and lifestyle habits is to follow them yourself. Let your child see you eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.

Include your child in the kitchen. As age-appropriate, let your child help with grocery shopping, food preparation, and meal planning. For example, let younger children pick out the produce at the store. Let older children help stirring pots or measuring spices. Your child will learn these important life skills and gain a new appreciation for food. Picky eaters may even be more likely to try a new food if they help prepare it.

Eat together as a family. Share meals together as a family. When planning a meal, try to make dishes that everyone enjoys, but do not fall into the trap of being a short-order cook for your child by preparing completely separate meals just for him or her. (Bear in mind that if your child is receiving cancer treatment, he or she may have specific dietary needs. In this case, separate meals may be necessary.)

Introduce foods again, again, and again. If your child doesn’t like a food the first time you serve it, try again. Children may need to try a food many times before they begin to enjoy it. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests it may take up to 15 tries before a child accepts a new food. 

Encourage a colorful plate. Children often gravitate toward high-carb, starchy or bland foods such as chicken nuggets, macaroni, fries, and bread. Teach your child to eat a rainbow of foods—not just brown or tan ones. Eating a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables is a good way to get many different healthy nutrients. Half your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits. 

Make fruits and vegetables available. Leave whole fruits like apples or bananas out for your child. Keep cut up fruits and veggies in the fridge. If healthy snacks are readily available, it is more likely your child will eat them. 

Avoid buying packaged, processed snacks. Similarly, do not keep snacks with little nutritional value such as cookies, candy, and chips in the home. If they are available, your child will eat them and ignore other healthier options. 

Follow a plant-based menu. You do not need to serve meat with every meal. In fact, it is best include a variety of protein sources in your menus such as beans, peas, soy, legumes, nuts, nut butters and seeds. Make it exciting for your child by doing “Meatless Mondays” or choosing another set night for vegetarian meals.

Add “secret” vegetables. Add extra vegetables to dishes your child already enjoys to increase intake. For example add mushrooms, zucchini, or carrots to spaghetti. 

Choose water first. Provide water to keep your child hydrated. If you child doesn’t like plain water, try water with slices of fruits or sparkling water for the fizz. Avoid sodas and other sugary drinks. Watch out for some “fruit drinks” branded for children that have a lot of added sugar. Opt for 100% fruit juice instead. 

Reduce the risk of choking. Young children are at a high risk of choking while eating. You can help reduce your child’s risk by

  • Cutting food into small pieces
  • Serving soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow
  • Supervising children during meals and snacks.

For more information and tips to prevent choking, view the USDA’s handout Reducing the Risk of Choking in Young Children at Mealtimes.

Avoid using food as a reward. The types of foods used as rewards are typically candy or other desserts. These items often have little nutritional value and may take the place of other foods with more nutritional value such as vegetables, fruits, whole gains, and proteins. 

Be aware of the signs of eating disorders. When children reach their preteen or teenage years, they often become more aware of their bodies. They may feel pressure to look a certain way or be a certain size. To achieve this, they may even try trend diets, pills or supplements, or other dangerous weight loss techniques. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website to learn the warning signs and symptoms for an eating disorder. If you suspect your child is struggling with an eating disorder, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Ask for a referral to a registered dietitian and/or therapist that specializes in eating disorders.

While your child is receiving cancer treatment, it may be neither possible nor practical to follow all of the suggestions on this page. Your child may experience side effects that make eating difficult. The healthcare team may provide specific guidelines to follow. Modify nutrition strategies as needed. Ask for a referral to a registered dietitian with expertise in pediatric oncology nutrition. See During Treatment for more.