When your loved one refuses to eat what you’ve prepared
picture of woman in background holding soup in the foreground
Photo credit: Meg

As a caregiver to someone in treatment for cancer or other chronic diseases, the desire to help and to make life easier for them becomes an overwhelming passion. The focus on diet and nutrition is often the target because it is more controllable than other aspects of cancer treatment. How many times have you thought of a great meal idea that you are sure will be tasty and pleasing, gone grocery shopping, prepared the recipe and made a nice presentation for your loved one, and then hear from them,

“I just can’t eat that.”

They are going through so many physical, emotional and mental side effects from their cancer journey that they probably can’t even tell you why they can’t eat something you’ve taken time to prepare. Below are strategies that I have learned from caregivers and people dealing with cancer treatment on developing the best relationship to meal times and food.

Improve the way you and your loved one are thinking

  • Many times, the loved one that is ill was the family member that did the shopping and food preparation. Think and discuss ways that your new role as the caregiver can change to meet the needs of your loved one.
  • As a caregiver, remember that your loved one still wants to feel in control of their situation. Ask questions and keep the communication open. Becoming forceful, pushy and demanding can lead to contention and resistance. When your loved one doesn’t partake in mealtimes, ask what they think would be most helpful. If they don’t have any suggestions, try some of the strategies below.
  • Keep your thoughts and the comments you make positive. Boosting the motivation to eat and maintain nutritional intake can happen with positivity and loving support.
  • Try your best to understand see their perspective. Talk with them about it, if they are willing. Prepare yourself mentally that your loved one could have many changes in their food preferences, taste and eating abilities.
  • Be aware that many people undergoing cancer treatment eat smaller amounts of food and often eat more comfort-type foods instead of nutritious choices. Be supportive of their choices.
  • Do not allow yourself to obsess about numbers. Monitoring weight, calorie intake or other nutrients can cause unnecessary worry and increase conflict. Focus on providing a positive attitude, love and support.

Strategies to improve overall nutritional intake

  • Serve food in small portions and use smaller dishes or cups. Large portions can appear very overwhelming and can often diminish an already small appetite. Strive to offer small portions of food more frequently throughout the day.
  • Try to engage your loved one in social eating. Many people dealing with cancer treatment find themselves eating alone, which can make eating less enjoyable. Have food available when people visit and encourage your loved one to partake.
  • If you are working during the day and your loved one is home alone, prepare food and beverage options that are quick and easy. Use a cue, like an alarm, to remind them to eat and/or drink. Call throughout the day to provide encouragement.
  • Make meal times more appealing by eating in new locations around the house. Set up a meal outside on the patio, enjoy a picnic together or have a candlelight dinner in the dining room.
  • Make the meal look appetizing by adding garnishes, colorful choices and trying new recipes. If your loved one is consuming a texture modified diet, like a mechanical soft or pureed diet, ask them to try flipping through a cooking magazine while eating. The colorful, appealing pictures may boost their appetite.
  • Keep food prepared, in view and easily accessible on the counter, coffee table or at eye level in the refrigerator. When our loved ones don’t have an appetite, food is rarely on their mind, but they are more likely to remember to eat when food is in view.
  • Many people dealing with treatment are unable to eat their favorite foods because of different side effects that they are experiencing. Try new and different foods that may appeal to them.
  • If you notice that your loved one eats best at a particular time of day, focus on providing the most nutrition at that time. Increase the calories and protein content by adding cheese, whole milk, sour cream, eggs, butter, salad dressings, nut butters, healthy oils and oral nutrition supplements.
  • Always practice safe food handling techniques. Cancer treatments can inhibit an individual’s immune system and people undergoing treatment are at an increase risk of food borne illness. If you question the freshness or quality of a food, throw it out.
  • Lastly, take care of yourself! Being a caregiver is very important and everything you do, no matter how small, makes a huge impact. If you are not eating, drinking, sleeping and getting time for yourself then you will not be at your best. If you become ill, depressed or overwhelmed, the burden of caregiving can get to you, and you won’t be able to provide care.

Use these tips to become an effective caregiver and help improve the relationship to meal times and food of your family member who is going through cancer treatment.

picture of angela hummel from meals to healAngela Hummel’s passion to help people with cancer has developed from learning the nutritional demands of cancer and seeing the improvement that nutritional modification can provide. 

She is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition and studied nutrition at Central Michigan University, where Angela completed her bachelor’s degree, dietetic internship, and master’s degree. Angela is part of the clinical team at Meals to Heal, where she counsels people on oncology nutrition issues and contributes to clinical their website and other Meals to Heal content.

Written by Savor Health
Savor Health offers a comprehensive range of nutrition services for people with cancer and their loved ones. Using the latest technology and research, Savor provides individually personalized nutrition solutions that meet each patient’s unique needs from prevention to survivorship. Services include individually curated information and resources, one on one nutrition counseling with oncology-credentialed registered dietitians and home delivery of meals tailored to individual needs and tastes. Savor is in the business of nourishing the body, mind and spirit of people with cancer. Cancer starves the body of nutrition. Savor Health uses nutrition to fight cancer.

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  1. When my mom was in a hospice residence facility–she spent nine months there–the meals provided by the facility, though low-salt, still contained too much salt for her system and the congestive heart failure she battled. So even though we as a family were paying for her stay in the facility, I prepared all her meals and brought them to the hospice residence for the duration of her time there. I worked hard to try to make the meals “seem” like they were either her favorite foods or gourmet. Beef tips. Creamed asparagus. Soups–everything from scratch and with all kinds of gyrations to eliminate all the salt. She’d lost her sense of smell and taste. But somehow, certain meals seemed wonderful to her. Other days? Once when she’d had to be medicated more heavily than others, I entered her room and she said, “I don’t know who made that meal I had last night, but it was awful!” It wouldn’t have helped if I’d bitten back with, “Mom, I’ve made all your meals for you since you got here. I drive them here from twenty miles away. I package them in little tiny containers to match your appetite. I scour the grocery stores for things you can have. I put lots of effort into making things you’ll enjoy in the middle of all you can’t enjoy.” Instead, I said, “Try this one,” and put a plate of her favorite casserole in front of her. “This is delicious.” Same casserole as the day before. New mood. For both of us.

    • Cynthia, I love you saying “it wouldn’t have helped..” What a great attitude and a loving daughter you are.


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