Planning Ahead for Meals Before Starting Chemotherapy

When undergoing chemotherapy, cooking will likely be the last thing you want to do in the days following an infusion. Lack of energy, nausea, and other treatment side effects can make even make the thought of food unbearable for some.

Even if you have zero appetite, proper nutrition is crucial during cancer treatment. Eating snacks and smaller meals throughout the day is often more a realistic goal than having your typical "3 squares a day."

Chicken soup in plate with spoon on napkin, close up
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Plan Ahead to Ensure Proper Nutrition

Equally important is preparation before therapy even begins. Freezing smaller meals in advance is often the best way to do so, especially if you have a family. Instead of whipping up, say, a pot of your famous chili from scratch (the aromatic spices of which will probably make you ill), you can pre-prepare a batch and pop individual portions into freezer bags. Easy as that.

You may also consider investing in boil-in bags if you don't have a microwave. As opposed to standard ziplock-style bags (which can melt or potentially leach chemicals into your food), these special sous vide bags have been FDA approved for boiling and are available from most specialty culinary supply stores.

7 Tips for Freezing Meals Safely

If you have never frozen a meal or are uncertain how to do so safely for larger portions, here are a few tips that can help:

  • Always keep your freezer temperature at zero (0) degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Higher temperatures allow the growth of bacteria and spoilage.
  • Always freeze food in containers or bags that are freezer safe.
  • Always use the appropriately sized container for the portion you are freezing. Excess air increases the risk of bacterial growth.
  • On the other hand, do not overfill containers as food tends to expand as they freeze. If you are not careful, an overfilled bag can burst open and ruin a prepared meal.
  • Be sure to write the content of the container and the date the food was frozen either on the container itself or on freezer safe labels or masking tape. Be sure to write in ink that won't smudge or fade, ideally a permanent marker
  • Allow food to cool before putting it into the freezer. If you don't, it can partially melt nearby containers, causing ice crystals to form and altering the flavor and smell.
  • It's important to remember that frozen foods do not last forever. The general rule of thumb is to never keep prepared meals frozen for more than three months, possibly less if your freezer temperature is anything less than perfect.

Foods That Don't Freeze Well

By and large, the majority of cooked meals freeze beautifully without compromising the taste, texture, or your safety. Other types of foods don't fare as well. Among them:

  • Dairy-heavy dishes usually don't freeze well. The fat in milk, mayonnaise, cream cheese, or sour cream can separate in the freezing process. The same applies to some buttery sauces.
  • While it is perfectly safe to freeze spaghetti without sauce, the pasta will usually be mushy when thawed. On the other hand, composed pasta dishes like lasagna, baked ziti, or macaroni and cheese freeze beautifully.
  • Fried foods will often become soggy after thawing.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetable salad do not freeze well.
  • Some individually cooked vegetables, like zucchini, eggplant, or broccoli, may also have a slight change in texture after defrosting.

Best Types of Foods to Freeze

When planning meals prior to chemotherapy, try to avoid strong spices and flavors which can trigger nausea. Focus on simple, comfort foods like baked chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, and unseasoned vegetables for the first few days following an infusion. These foods are usually the easiest to tolerate.

Other recommended foods include:

  • frozen berries (great for shakes and smoothies)
  • chicken soup and other soups or broths
  • pre-cooked chicken which can be shredded, diced, or chopped for salads, quick stews, or simply to snack on
  • lean red meat meals like meatloaf, shepherd's pie, or beef tips with gravy (if you are able to tolerate red meat)
  • bread (which can bind a runny stomach)

If you can't keep foods down or are unable to eat, keep a stock of nutritional shakes on hand, like Ensure or Boost. While these should never be used as meal substitutes, they can provide much-needed nutrition during the "off" days you may have following chemotherapy.

By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.