Written by Ashley Stepro, Pediatric Registered Dietitian
Eating healthfully can be difficult for caregivers who have a child going through cancer treatment. This is especially true when your child is hospitalized. You may be dependent on the food offered in the hospital, which may not be the type of food you are used to. It can also be difficult to find the time to eat between staff rounding, vitals, and other necessary—but time-consuming—procedures. Stress may also affect your appetite in unexpected ways and make you more or less hungry than usual.
While there are a lot of factors out of your control, eating well can still be an obtainable goal during your child’s hospital stay. Here are some tips to consider:
If you know your child is going to be admitted to the hospital, try to plan ahead. Bring a variety of snacks and small meals so you always have access to something nutritious. Nutrient dense options include whole grain cereals, individual packets of peanut butter, whole nuts, sunflower seeds, fruit, granola or granola bars (look for options that contain less added sugars), tuna pouches or snack kits, individual containers of milk/soy milk, graham (or other whole grain) crackers, microwavable soup bowls, and whole grain breads and bagels. If you have access to a refrigerator or cooler, bring items such as pre-cut fruits and vegetables, hummus, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and cheese.
Invest in a water bottle. A big one, preferably with markings so you can keep track of how much you are drinking. Dehydration can affect your ability to think, cause headaches and fatigue, and even make you dizzy—not a great combination when you are trying to be active and present for your child. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends at least 11.5 cups of fluid per day for women and 15.5 cups for men, though some of this will also come from the food you eat (like fruit). The easiest way to know if you are drinking enough is to check your urine color—pale yellow should be your goal.
Take advantage of any freebies. There are several non-profit organizations and charities that will donate meals to local hospitals. Some hospitals and clinics may also have snacks available on hand for families that need them. These are for your benefit—utilize them! If you have the option to choose a meal or even serve yourself, try to keep a balanced plate by choosing larger portions of produce (think about half of your plate) with smaller portions of protein and starches (about ¼ of the plate each). Try to avoid mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and other high calorie condiments if you are concerned about your weight, as these items are often a hidden source of extra calories.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have family members and friends that are asking how they can provide support, ask them to assist with meals or grocery shopping. This could also mean bringing homemade meals to the hospital or bringing in a to-go order from a restaurant. Gift cards for a food delivery company can also be a great option if you don’t have family or friends locally. This will also allow you the flexibility to choose the type of food you want.
At the end of the day, give yourself grace. Food is more than nutrition—it can also be a comfort and a celebration. If your child’s scans were clear, enjoy a slice of cake with them without feeling guilty. You don’t have to “earn” anything!
Ashely Stepro is a Pediatric Registered Dietitian at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Eastern Michigan University. Ashley is married, and she and her husband have two cats, Bonnie and Betty. Ashley is very close to her family who resides in her home state of Michigan. She enjoys running, gardening, traveling, and watching college football (Go Blue!).