With the holidays just around the corner, ‘tis the season for planning those family meals. This year, if your guest list includes a loved one undergoing cancer treatment, you may want to adjust the menu accordingly. The holiday season offers an opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones. But for some cancer patients, holiday meals can prove challenging.

Those undergoing chemotherapy, for example, may be struggling with a lack of appetite. Others may be experiencing nausea, pain, a metallic taste or other common side effects that make eating traditional meals difficult.

“Many patients have loving friends and family members who will bring over their favorite foods. While their intentions are good, it can potentially have bad outcome if the patient is nauseated,” says Crystal Langlois, Clinical Nutrition Manager at our hospital near Atlanta. “If the patient becomes ill, they may never want to see or eat that food again.”

As a host, you can take the first step in accommodating such guests by broaching the topic. Ask how they’re feeling or if they prefer a specific food or meal preparation. While most of us have a holiday favorite—the most common Thanksgiving fare being turkey, cranberry sauce or stuffing—some recipes could use some modifications to make them healthier or more palatable for someone in treatment. “Avoid canned foods. Instead, use fresh vegetables or frozen ones. Use olive or canola oil instead of butter or margarine” says Langlois. “Small changes like that, and making your own gravy rather than buying prepackaged versions, can make a big difference.”

Another challenge patients undergoing treatment often face is an altered sense of taste that makes some foods unappetizing. Patients may complain that certain foods they once enjoyed now taste too salty, sweet or metallic. To offset a metallic taste, Langlois recommends cooking in glassware and ceramic pots and pans. To reduce the saltiness, she suggests adding honey, agave nectar or lemon or lime juice as a neutralizer. Adding lemon or lime juice can cut the sweetness, while mixing in lemon or other foods high in vitamin C, like berries or peppers, facilitate the absorption of iron, which may help patients who are anemic. For those with difficulty swallowing, Langlois recommends soup, especially the jarred or homemade variety instead of canned brands. Solid food should be cut into very small pieces or placed into a mini food processor.

Equally important as choosing the right foods is to prepare them properly in a nutritious and palatable way. Take special care when handling and cooking food when your guests have weakened immune systems, because new bacteria can lead to debilitating illnesses. That means paying close attention to the clock. Since harmful bacteria typically multiply rapidly, foods should be refrigerated below 40°F and should sit out for no longer than two hours. As a backup for longer gatherings, consider keeping a fresh set of food in the fridge and swapping it out at the two-hour mark. Food safety also requires making sure foods are cooked thoroughly.

Langlois shared some recipes from the American Institute for Cancer Research that can be enjoyed during the holidays, or any time. They are easy to prepare and some require only a few ingredients.

Cranberry Chutney (Makes 32 servings)

Ingredients:
½ cup white grape juice
½ cup packed light brown sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1 medium sweet apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium naval orange, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium bag (12 oz. fresh or frozen cranberries)
½ cup dried currants

Directions: In Dutch over or large, heavy pan, combine grape juice, sugar, cinnamon cumin, cloves and bay leaf.  Bring to boil over medium-high heat.  Add apple, onion, orange, cranberries and currants.  Return to boil; reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until cranberries and soft.  Remove bay leaf. Spoon chutney into sterilized glass jars.  Cover immediately with 2-part canning tops, cool and refrigerate. Or store in plastic container in refrigerator and use within 1-2 weeks.

Baked Lemon Fish (serves 3-4)

Ingredients:
12 ounces frozen cod (orange roughy, tilapia or whitefish can be substituted)
2 teaspoons butter or no trans fat margarine
¼ cup skim milk
4 teaspoons grated lemon
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/8 teaspoon lemon pepper
2 teaspoons dried parsley

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Thaw frozen fish, place it in single layer in a baking dish. Mix butter, milk, lemon juice, lemon rind and lemon pepper; pour over fish. Sprinkle with dried parsley. Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes.

Quick Black Bean Soup (serves 4)

Ingredients:
2 15 ounce cans of no-salt added black beans – undrained
½ cup salsa
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 16 ounce can fat-free, low sodium chicken broth
½ cup shredded low fat sharp cheddar cheese
5 tablespoons low fat sour cream
5 tablespoons green onions – chopped
2 ½ tablespoons fresh cilantro – chopped

Directions: Place beans and liquid in a medium saucepan, partially mash beans with potato masher. Place over high heat, stir in salsa, chili powder and broth. Bring to boil. Ladle soup into bowls; top with cheese, sour cream, onions and cilantro.

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