Small Changes to Help Food Taste Better When You Have Cancer

November 26, 2019
Rebecca Katz, MS

Rebecca Katz, MS, is the founder of Healing Kitchens LLC and is a nationally recognized expert on the role of food in supporting health for people with chronic illness. Ms. Katz has a Masters of Science in Health and Nutrition Education and received her culinary training from New York's Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. She is the author of the award-winning cookbook, The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing Big Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Beyond, and 5 other cookbooks focusing on the connection between food and health. Learn more about Ms. Katz at her website.

Regardless of where you or a loved one is on the continuum of the cancer experience, food has the capacity to bring comfort and joy into our lives, even in the middle of painful circumstances. After all, going through life with cancer isn’t just about surviving; it’s about thriving. It’s important to follow the advice of your medical professionals, such as an oncology dietitian, when it comes to your nutrition, so be sure to discuss with them an eating plan during your cancer care. Here, I’ll focus on techniques and tips that will result in wonderful, delicious meals that are full of healthy ingredients.

I’ve been an advocate for what I call “the power of yum” for over 20 years. I help people revive a connection with food, using flavor to ignite a blast of color in what might have otherwise been reduced to a “black-and-white” food world. I’ve found that helping people make nourishing, healing, and joyful connections with food empowers them to live happier, healthier lives.

I was powerfully reminded of this a few years ago at a workshop I was involved with for cancer survivors and health care professionals at Stanford University. Nearly 70 people from all over the world attended, and I worked with 6 of them during my presentation—one at a time—to customize their experience with food. Each person had something different going on with their taste buds, and we were able to adjust each dish to accommodate their individual needs and perceptions. I might as well have been up there with tweezers because the adjustments were so minute: adding a pinch of salt, a few drops of fresh lemon juice, or a drizzle of olive oil. But those tiny tweaks made a huge difference. People in the audience were learning how to use this approach to adjust food for their own palate, on their own plate.

I describe these minor flavor adjustments as “FASS,” which is an acronym for fat, acid, salt, and sweet. Learning this culinary alchemy to customize the flavor of your food can be a complete game changer for people struggling to eat.share on twitter

For example, if your taste buds are saying:

  • Things have a metallic taste. Add a little sweetener, like grade A dark maple syrup or agave nectar, and a squeeze of lemon. You could also try adding fat, such as a nut cream or butter.

  • Things taste too sweet. Start by adding 6 drops of lemon or lime juice. Keep adding it in small increments until the sweet taste becomes muted.

  • Things taste too salty. Add ¼ teaspoon of lemon juice. It erases the taste of salt.

  • Things taste too bitter. Add a little sweetener, like maple syrup or agave nectar.

  • Everything tastes like cardboard. Add more sea salt until the flavor of the dish moves toward the front of the mouth. A spritz of fresh lemon juice also helps.

  • You’re having trouble swallowing or dealing with mouth sores. Add fat, such as a nut cream, to your food. Eat blended or pureed foods, like blended soups, smoothies, and granitas. Stay away from ginger, curry, red pepper flakes, and other strong spices.

Making small changes like these to your diet can make a big difference in how you feel, recover, and thrive. Here are some other general tips to keep in mind to create a better relationship with food:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking water, tea, and other liquids. Sip fluids throughout the day to give your organs and bodily systems the water they need to work properly. Vegetables and soups also help keep your body hydrated.

  • Eat 4 to 6 smaller meals, instead of the typical 3 larger meals, especially if you’re having problems with digestion.

  • Limit or avoid highly processed foods, and you'll automatically reduce many added sugars, unhealthy fats, additives, and colorings. Limiting or avoiding certain foods does not mean that you are sentenced to eating joyless and flavorless foods. Use FASS to bring the “yum” to everyday meals while nourishing your body.

  • Eat a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and healthy fats. That way, you’ll get most of your vitamins and minerals directly from food. Try for a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day.

  • Stick with plants. Whenever plants are at the center of the plate—and that includes herbs and spices—you can’t lose.

  • Cooked vegetables may be easier to eat than raw vegetables. However, both raw and cooked veggies are beneficial.

  • Add herbs and spices to both food and drinks, and the payout will be big flavor and nutrients.

  • Be prepared and stock your pantry with real food. Think of your pantry, fridge, and freezer as your culinary medicine chest. As you cook more, you can store leftovers in the refrigerator and freezer for later. Soon, you'll have a supply of nourishing prepared foods.

  • Make cooking a part of your everyday life. Get comfortable in your kitchen and exercise your “culinary muscles.” Cook and eat a meal with friends and family to nourish your body, mind, and soul.

  • Focus on what you can eat rather than on what you're giving up. There are many beautiful and delicious foods you can still enjoy.

  • Work with a registered dietitian to meet your unique nutritional needs.


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