Child Nutrition and Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

During cancer treatment, children may have to deal with side effects that affect their willingness or ability to eat. Report any and all side effects to a qualified health care provider right away.

Below are some common side effects and tips for coping with them.

  • If the child loses his or her appetite:
    • Be patient. Don't make eating a struggle.
    • Offer high-calorie, high-protein foods that the child likes.
    • Don't worry about the child's fat intake; however, avoid trans fats (hydrogenated oils).
    • Offer smaller and more frequent meals, rather than larger meals.
    • Always have a snack handy.
    • Make sure the child drinks plenty of fluids.
    • Try milk or soup for protein and nutrients.
    • Encourage the child to have a snack before bed.
    • Offer frozen fruit and yogurt "smoothies," milkshakes, and popsicles.
    • Encourage the child to be as physically active as possible (physical activity can help increase appetite).
    • Don't let the child fill up on fluids (such as soft drinks or sweetened juices) while eating.
  • If the child becomes constipated:
    • Encourage fluids.
    • Ask the child's health care provider about increasing dietary fiber.
    • Provide plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
    • Encourage the child to get some physical activity.
  • If the child has diarrhea:
    • Replenish lost fluids, sodium and potassium with broth, fruit and vegetable juices, popsicles, or soups.
    • Offer small amounts of food frequently during the day instead of large meals.
    • Avoid fried or fatty foods, raw vegetables, fruit skin, beans, and corn.
    • Avoid caffeine (typically in chocolate and soft drinks).
    • For grains, offer white rice, white bread, noodles, or cream of wheat.
    • For dairy, offer yogurt or cottage cheese.
    • For protein, offer eggs, smooth peanut butter, skinless poultry, lean beef, or broiled fish.
  • If the child experiences nausea:
    • Offer foods such as toast, crackers, and pretzels.
    • Avoid greasy, spicy, and fried foods.
    • Offer smaller food portions more frequently.
    • Encourage eating slowly.
    • Encourage eating before getting hungry—hunger can induce nausea.
    • Help the child to get fresh air and avoid strong cooking odors.
  • If the child develops a sore mouth or throat or has difficulty swallowing:
    • To prevent infection, help the child practice good oral care.
    • Serve milkshakes or fruit and yogurt "smoothies."
    • Offer soft, low-acid fruits such as bananas, applesauce, and watermelon.
    • Serve cottage cheese, yogurt, custard, or pudding.
    • Offer soft foods such as macaroni & cheese, noodles, and oatmeal.
    • For protein, puree meats in a blender, offer fried or scrambled eggs.
    • Avoid citrus fruits, tomato sauce, salty or spicy foods, and coarse foods such as granola.
    • Wait until food cools to serve it.
    • The child's dentist may have tips to ease mouth pain with special care techniques.
  • If the child develops dry mouth:
    • Provide a water bottle to sip from through the day.
    • Hard candy, popsicles, chewing gum, and tart drinks may increase saliva.
    • Puree food to make it easier to swallow.
    • Offer lip balm to keep lips from chapping.
    • Add sauces, salad dressings and gravies to make food easier to swallow.
    • Ask a health care provider or dentist about "artificial saliva" products.
  • If the child experiences changes in the taste and smell of food try these suggestions:
    • Switch to plastic utensils if the child complains of a metallic taste.
    • Only serve foods that appeal to the child.
    • If beef has a bitter or metallic taste, try chicken or mild tasting fish.
    • Marinate beef in sweet fruit juice, sweet wine, or Italian dressing.
    • Try seasoning foods with citrus, oregano, or bacon to enhance the flavor.
    • If cooking smells bother the child, try cooking outside or using an exhaust fan.

After cancer treatment ends, side effects will most likely go away. However, if the child has lost weight, it may take a while to get back to a healthy weight. Follow the advice of a qualified health care provider or dietician to help the child reach his or her recommended weight.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Mar 2007

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2014