Ways to help your child take in more protein and calories

These tips may help your child eat better. Eating as well as possible is important for children with cancer, but don’t make food a battleground. And always talk to the health care team if you’re worried that your child isn’t eating or drinking enough. They can help you with this before it becomes a serious problem.

  • Serve your child small meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than 3 large meals. Good snacks are peanut butter and crackers, cheese sticks, pudding, fruit roll-ups, and cereal and milk.
  • Let your child eat whenever she feels hungry, and be sure to include high-calorie, high-protein foods. Fat is a rich source of energy, so more fat can be helpful during times that your child is having trouble taking in enough calories. High-fat items such as hamburgers, fries, pizza, and ice cream give calories, protein, and other key nutrients.
  • Have your child eat their biggest meal when she feels hungriest. For example, if she is hungriest in the morning, make breakfast the biggest meal.
  • Use the Choose My Plate Food Guidance System as a guide for good nutrition. You can learn more about this at www.choosemyplate.gov.
  • Try to get your child to drink most of her fluids between meals instead of with meals. Drinking fluid with meals can make her feel too full.
  • Use colorful cups, mugs, and straws to encourage your child to drink fluids throughout the day.
  • Use cookie cutters to cut shapes from sandwiches, gelatin, meats, and cheeses.
  • Make faces out of fruits and vegetables. (Many children’s cookbooks have examples.)
  • Serve food in unusual containers or on cartoon character plates.
  • Have picnics. (You can use the backyard, the living room, or even the attic.)
  • Let your child help plan meals and prepare the food. Help with planning can be as simple as letting the child choose between 2 vegetables.
  • Invite your child’s friends to share meals.
  • Plan ahead for meals missed because of things like doctors’ appointments and treatment appointments. Take along juice packs, snacks, and non-perishable foods, such as fruit cups, puddings, and cheese and crackers.
  • Talk to your child’s teachers about letting them eat or drink in the classroom.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active. Activity may make them want to eat.
  • Encourage your child to eat more when she feels well.

Call the doctor or nurse if your child has treatment-related problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, or vomiting.

How to add protein to meals and snacks*

Milk products

Give your child cheese on toast or with crackers.

Add grated cheese to baked potatoes, vegetables, soups, noodles, meat, and fruit.

Use milk instead of water when cooking hot cereal and cream soups.

Include cream or cheese sauces on vegetables and pasta.

Add powdered or undiluted evaporated milk to cream soups, mashed potatoes, puddings, and casseroles.

Add yogurt or cottage cheese to favorite fruits or blended smoothies.


All eggs should be well cooked to avoid the risk of harmful bacteria.

Keep hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator. Chop and add to salads, casseroles, soups, and vegetables. Make a quick egg salad.

Pasteurized egg substitute is a low-fat alternative to regular eggs.

Meats, poultry, and fish:

Add leftover cooked meats or fish to soups, casseroles, salads, and omelets.

Mix diced and flaked meat with sour cream and spices to make dip.

Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds:

Sprinkle seeds or nuts on desserts such as fruit, ice cream, pudding, and custard. Also serve on vegetables, salads, and pasta.

Spread peanut or almond butter on toast and fruit or blend in a milkshake.

High-calorie foods*

Butter, oil, and salad dressing:

Melt butter or spoon salad oil over potatoes, rice, pasta, and cooked vegetables.

Stir melted butter into soups and casseroles.

Spread melted butter or regular (not low-fat) mayonnaise on bread before adding other ingredients to sandwiches.

Use regular (not low-fat or diet) salad dressing on sandwiches and as dips with vegetables and fruit.

Milk products:

Add whipping cream to desserts, pancakes, waffles, fruit, and hot chocolate; fold it into soups and casseroles. Use it in its liquid form for baking, soups, or casseroles; or sweeten and whip it to make dessert topping.

Add sour cream to baked potatoes and vegetables.


Add jelly to bread and crackers. Honey can be given to older children.

Add jam to fruit.

Use ice cream as a topping on cake.

*Adapted from Eldridge B, and Hamilton KK, Editors, Management of Nutrition Impact Symptoms in Cancer and Educational Handouts. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association; 2004.

Don’t forget about physical activity

Physical activity has many benefits for healthy children. It helps maintain muscle mass, strength, stamina, and bone strength. In adults, it can help improve appetite and reduce depression, fatigue, nausea, and constipation even during cancer treatment.

Physical activity has been shown to benefit adults during cancer treatment, but it has not been well studied in children with cancer. Talk to your doctor about activities your child can safely do, or if there are clinical trials of physical activity your child can enroll in. If the doctor approves, start small (maybe 5 to 10 minutes each day) and as he is able, let your child work up to a goal of 60 minutes. It’s important to let your child do what he can when he feels up to it. Don’t push him, and encourage him to rest when needed.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: June 30, 2014

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