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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Nutrition and Side Effects

Cafeteria at St. Jude

Hospital stays can interfere with normal eating routines and make it hard to eat healthy.

During cancer or other serious illness, many children have trouble eating healthy and meeting nutrition goals. Problems with eating and nutrition can result in:

  • Weight loss
  • Delayed growth
  • Feeling tired or irritable
  • Getting sick more easily
  • Weakness and lack of energy for physical activity

Poor nutrition can be due to several factors. Children who have problems with their mouth, stomach, or intestines are at a higher risk of not getting enough nutrients because they have trouble eating or digesting food. Changes in routine or meal restrictions during hospital stays or medical treatments can interfere with normal eating. Children may also have decreased appetite due to pain, stress, worry, and lack of physical activity.

For many children, treatment side-effects or other symptoms make it hard to meet nutrition goals. There are strategies that can help families address specific side effects and nutrition problems.

How parents can support nutrition goals

Help children plan eating around times when they are feeling better. Photo shows a childhood cancer patient eating a grilled cheese sandwich in the hospital cafeteria.

Help children plan eating around times when they are feeling better.

During a serious illness, eating habits can change unexpectedly. It can be easy for mealtimes to become stressful for families. These reminders can help families meet nutrition needs.

  • Encourage your child to eat and enjoy food when feeling well. Many children find that the desire to eat changes at different points during treatment. Parents can help children plan eating around times when they are feeling better.
  • Offer favorite foods and drinks. This is particularly important when a child is too sick to eat or drink much. Offer desired foods often to help encourage your child to eat.
  • Don’t be pushy. Gently remind your child when it's time to eat. Trying to force children to eat can cause children to resist more. Trying to “win” a battle over food can also cause more stress on families.
  • Be flexible. Offer choices, follow cravings, and don’t get stuck on having to follow a “normal” schedule. 
  • Maintain routine. Like flexibility, routine is also important. Eating is a bonding time for most families. Continue family meal traditions even if the child wants to eat something different or nothing at all.

Nutritional supplements

Nutritional supplements or meal replacements may be needed if your child has trouble meeting nutrition needs with food. These are usually liquid meal replacements and are available in a variety of flavors. If your child loses weight, your care team may recommend nutrition products such as Pediasure® or Ensure®. In some cases, your care team may give medicine to help improve your child’s appetite.

Talk to your child’s care team when poor eating continues for more than two or three days. Be sure to ask before using any supplements or meal replacements. Some products may not be safe or could interfere with your child’s treatments. You care team may suggest help from a nutrition professional. Read more about Clinical Nutrition and nutrition support.

Good nutrition helps pediatric patients achieve normal growth, continue to take part in daily activities, and improve overall health.

For more information on nutrition and healthy weight for families, see We Can – Nutrition Tools and Resources.

Key Points

  • Good nutrition is important for your child’s normal growth and development, overall health, and ability to do daily activities.
  • Side-effects of treatments can make it hard for your child to eat healthy and meet nutrition goals.
  • Talk to your child’s care team when poor eating continues for more than a few days.
  • Your child’s care team can help you plan nutrition strategies to cope with specific side effects.

Reviewed: September 2022