Childhood Nutrition & Cancer Treatment

For children who are diagnosed with cancer, good nutrition is important for many reasons. In addition to helping the child continue normal growth and development, healthy eating will help the child:

  • Avoid vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Better tolerate side effects of treatment
  • Feel better
  • Heal and rebuild tissue
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Lower the risk for infection
  • Maintain strength and energy
  • Recover as quickly as possible

When children are treated for cancer, there are several ways to provide proper nutrition. If possible, the child should get all the necessary nutrients by eating healthy foods. If healthy eating is not possible, a feeding tube may be used. When a feeding tube is used, children may be able to eat some foods by mouth also.

If the child has a blockage, or has had surgery of the stomach or intestines and cannot digest food, he or she may need intravenous feeding (also called total parenteral nutrition [TPN]).

Diet recommendations during cancer treatment can be very different from normal recommendations for healthy eating in children. To maintain a healthy weight, the child may need to add extra calories from foods such as milkshakes, pudding, and ice cream.

Getting a child to eat under any circumstances can be challenging. Below is a list of ideas to help children eat during cancer treatment:

  • Offer straws to help the child drink fluids.
  • Serve food on colorful cups and plates. Try to find the child's favorite cartoon characters.
  • Make playful shapes such as hearts, stars, or footballs out of sandwiches, meats, and cheeses. Cut them out by hand or using cookie cutters.
  • Use colorful fruits and vegetables to make a face or design on the child's plate.
  • Try eating in different locations, such as a picnic indoors, outside, or at a park.
  • Allow the child to invite a friend over for a meal or snack.
  • Serve frequent, healthy, high-protein, high-calorie snacks, such as cheese sticks, pudding, and peanut butter with fruit.

Because some healthy cells may also get damaged during cancer treatment, the body may need extra protein to help rebuild itself. Children who are undergoing cancer treatment may need extra protein to help rebuild damaged tissue.

Good sources of protein are meats, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, and nuts. Limit the child's intake of white or albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish due to potentially high levels of mercury. Talk with a health care provider about the safety of fish and seafood during the child's cancer treatment.

If the child's health care provider recommends more protein, the following suggestions may help:

  • Sprinkle sunflower seeds or nuts on fruit, ice cream, or pudding.
  • Add peanut butter to fruit or blend in a milk shake.
  • Offer milk-based soups and add cream sauces to vegetables.
  • Add chopped, hard-boiled egg to soups, salads, and pasta dishes.
  • Add peas, beans, or chickpeas to soups and salads.

A child's cancer treatment may involve taking steroid medication, such as prednisone or dexamethasone. These drugs can increase the child's appetite dramatically and cause some fluid retention.

Check with the child's health care provider or a dietician for recommendations on how to avoid or reduce these complications. Limiting salt and sodium can ease fluid retention and offering foods lower in calories, such as fresh fruits and raw vegetables may prevent excess weight gain. These side effects will likely go away when steroid therapy ends.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Mar 2007

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2014