Christmas dinner for cancer patients: What to eat and avoid if you’re undergoing treatment

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People who have cancer or are undergoing cancer treatment often experience problems with eating, including a loss of appetite, a sore mouth and changes in taste. This means for many of those with cancer, the traditional roast just isn’t going to cut it, with milder foods like turkey tasting bland and others, like crunchy roast potatoes, causing pain to the mouth and gums.

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    So, what should people with cancer eat this Christmas that is going to be kind to their bodies, easy to eat and taste good?

    Maria Halley, Lead dietitian at digital cancer care app Onko, said the best thing to do is to continue to eat sensibly.

    “The best advice I can give to anyone with cancer is to eat a balanced diet rich in whole grains, protein, omega 3 fatty acids like fatty fish and flaxseeds, nuts, pulses, fruit and vegetables,” she said.

    “Having said that, when you’re receiving cancer treatments it is not always easy or even possible to eat a healthy balanced diet. If you’re experiencing cancer or treatment-related side-effects, for example, maintaining weight and avoiding loss of muscle will be a top priority.”

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    Christmas dinner for cancer patients: What to eat and avoid if you’re undergoing treatment

    Christmas dinner for cancer patients: What should you eat and avoid if you’re undergoing treatment (Image: GETTY)

    Maria explained this is because unintentional weight and muscle loss can worsen fatigue and slow down recovery, so for someone with a poor appetite or who is losing weight, the focus should be on getting enough energy and protein into every bite, rather than getting five portions of fruit and vegetables.

    “This doesn’t have to be meat or fish,” said Maria. “Think nut butters, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, tofu, milk, cheese, yoghurt, or skimmed milk powder. You might also want to add an extra dollop of cream or splash of olive oil to soup to help boost energy value; ground almonds are also a great way to get some healthy fats and protein into pureed or softer meals, or try grated cheese in mash potatoes, soups and vegetables.

    “For symptoms such as taste change, there are some foods that you may find tricky and others that you might find easier on the palette. Go for what you find easy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

    Maria suggests using spices and bitter/sour condiments if you have taste change, and for those suffering from mouth sores or swallowing problems are an issue, she says “avoid hard crusty breads, tough meats or crispy roast potatoes, instead go for soups, flaked fish, mashed potatoes and pureed veggies.”

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    Many of those either undergoing or post-treatment find their appetite is poor, or that they get full up quite quickly; Maria’s advice is “eat a bit more frequently over the course of the day, as one big Christmas meal might feel overwhelming and may not be easy to tolerate.”

    Here is Maria’s example Christmas Day menu

    1. Breakfast: a small bowl of milky porridge with some nuts and seeds, and chopped fruit for taste; or eggs and cherry tomatoes on wholegrain toast.

    2. Mid-morning: mince pie with full-fat natural yoghurt instead of cream on the side for an extra protein boost.

    3. Starter: depending on the timing of Christmas lunch, you might want to have a starter of creamy soup or smoked salmon, a good squeeze of lemon and mashed avocado around two hours before.

    4. Main meal: choose a smaller plate for the main meal and check Onko’s ‘guide to Christmas vegetables’ below, put together by our chef Andy Morris.

    5. wait another two-three hours for pudding – trifle is a good soft option – add some ground almonds for a protein kick. A cheese board is also a good way to get some protein. Cheeses such as ricotta are packed full of whey protein which is particularly good for muscle maintenance.

    6. Before bed: A milky drink. A lot of people find nourishing drinks are an easy way to sneak in some extra energy and protein if they are losing weight or struggling with appetite.

    Christmas dinner for cancer patients: What to eat and avoid if you’re undergoing treatment

    Christmas dinner for cancer patients: People with cancer often experience problems with eating (Image: GETTY)

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    A guide to your Christmas vegetables

    Onko’s chef, Andy Morris said: “Eating healthily should not be punishing or dull. Getting a healthy balance should allow for some indulgence – especially at Christmas! The recipes below are indulgent yet nutritious, achieving that perfect balance for Christmas day.

    “There are certain vegetables we really associate with Christmas, the most obvious one being Brussels sprouts of course. I think roast potatoes come a close second, and maybe parsnips and peas? So here are my tried and tested recipes for traditional Christmas veg with a twist, ensuring you don’t feel left out this Christmas.”

    Brussels sprouts, bacon and chestnuts

    Serves 6

    Cooking level: easy

    Vegetables

    Prep time 15 mins, cooking 15 mins

    Ingredients

    600g Brussels sprouts

    150g pre-cooked chestnuts (vacuum packed)

    3 bacon rashers cut into thin slices

    25g pack of flat-leaf parsley. Chopped

    25g butter

    100ml chicken or vegetable stock warmed (if pureeing)

    Method

    1. Trim the sprouts and cut in half if large. If you’re going to puree this dish, slice the sprouts finely. Blanche them in boiling water for 4 minutes (3 minutes for the sliced sprouts). Then immediately drain and run under cold water till cold. Set aside.

    2. In a large frying pan add enough vegetable oil to create a thin film over the bottom of the pan and fry the bacon till golden. 8-10 minutes. Retain the bacon fat in the pan.

    3. Break the chestnuts in half and fry in the bacon fat for 2-3 minutes until they start to colour. Remove from the pan onto a sheet of kitchen towel.

    4. When the frying pan is hot again add 1 tsp of vegetable oil and add the sprouts. Season with salt and pepper at this stage and get a little colour on them. Add the butter to the pan and ½ the chopped parsley. Stir well.

    5. Add the chestnuts and bacon back to the pan and stir to warm through for 2 minutes. Add the fresh parsley and adjust the seasoning before serving. If using the puree method add the mix from the pan along with the remaining chopped parsley to a food processor. Add enough of the warm stock to blend into a puree. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.

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    Christmas dinner for cancer patients: What to eat and avoid if you’re undergoing treatment

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    Potato and parsnip puree

    Serves 6

    Cooking Level: easy

    Vegetables, dairy

    Prep time 10 mins, cooking time 15 mins

    This is an adaption of a traditional parsnip puree recipe that adds potato to round out the flavour and give a luxurious element to your Christmas vegetables.

    Ingredients

    300g floury potatoes (King Edward, Maris Pipers or Yukon Gold) peeled and cubed into 3cm cubes

    300g parsnips peeled halved and sliced into pieces approximately the same size as the potato

    3 cloves of garlic, peeled

    150ml double cream

    150ml whole milk

    1 bay leaf, fresh if possible

    1 sprig of rosemary

    125g unsalted butter cubed

    White pepper and salt to season (finely ground black pepper may also be used)

    Method

    1. In a saucepan add the potato, parsnip, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, milk and cream. Season with salt and 2 pinches of white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Cook till tender, 12-15 minutes.

    2. Place the vegetables including the garlic but excluding the rosemary, in a blender or food processor with a slotted spoon, retaining the liquor. Add the butter and enough of the liquor to achieve the texture of a soft mash. Be careful adding the liquor, you may not need it all. Adjust the seasoning with salt and white pepper and serve.

    Variation

    1. You can just use parsnip if you prefer, as is traditional.

    2. No rosemary? use thyme instead.

    Peas and mint

    Serves 6

    Cooking level: easy

    Vegetables, dairy

    Prep time 5 minutes, cooking time 5 minutes

    This is a delicious side dish which is suitable all year round. The reason I am including it here is it is a fresh hit against the richness of the other dishes and is made even fresher with a squeeze of lemon juice. Try it, it makes the flavours pop.

    Ingredients

    600g of frozen peas, defrosted and drained

    4 sprigs of mint (about 20 leaves) roughly chopped

    Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon

    25g of unsalted butter

    Method

    1. Put the peas in a medium saucepan with the butter and 30mls of water. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid, bring to a simmer for 4 minutes. Stir briefly after 2 minutes.

    2. Take the pan off the heat and add the mint, lemon zest and juice and stir in. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If pureeing, transfer the contents of the pan to a food processor and blitz to the required texture. If the mix is slightly dry add a tablespoon of hot water. Serve.

    Variation

    If you don’t have fresh mint, you could use 1 tsp of dried mint instead.

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