Menu   WellSpan Health

Health Library

Health Library

Nutritional Requirements for a Child With Cancer

The importance of good nutrition

Good nutrition is very important for children being treated for cancer. Children with cancer often have poor appetites due to one, or more, of the following:

  • The hospital environment

  • Side effects of chemotherapy or radiation

  • Depression

  • Pain when eating

  • Changes in the way food tastes

  • Side effects from medicines

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

Poor nutrition contributes to poor growth. If a child with cancer gets good nutrition, then he or she may be more likely to:

  • Better tolerate chemotherapy or radiation and with fewer side effects

  • Heal faster

  • Grow and develop

  • Maximize their quality of life

Special diets for children with cancer

Children with cancer often need more calories and protein. Protein is needed for growth and to help the body repair itself. Getting enough calories can help the body grow, heal, and prevent weight loss. If your child is having trouble eating enough calories and protein, your child's doctor or dietitian may suggest serving high-calorie and high-protein foods, such as eggs, milk, peanut butter, and cheese.

Sometimes, even when high-calorie and high-protein foods are offered, children with cancer have trouble eating enough. Tube feedings may be needed to help give your child enough nutrition or to prevent malnutrition. This involves placing a small tube (called a nasogastric, or NG tube) through the nose, down the food pipe (esophagus), and into the stomach. A high-calorie formula or supplement can be given to your child through this tube to help promote appropriate growth and development.

Children undergoing treatment for cancer sometimes need total parenteral nutrition (TPN) to help meet their nutritional needs. TPN is a special mixture of glucose, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals that is given through an IV into the veins. Many people call this "intravenous feedings." TPN provides the nutrients your child needs when he or she cannot eat or absorb the nutrients from foods. The TPN solution is usually given over several hours each day.

Managing treatment side effects and maintaining proper nutrition

Your child's cancer treatment  may cause side effects that make it hard to eat enough food. These are some of the common side effects and ideas for managing them.

Poor appetite

  • Try smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.

  • Try changing the time, place, and surroundings for meals.

  • Let your child help with shopping and preparing meals.

  • Offer high-calorie, high-protein meals and snacks.

  • Do not force your child to eat. This may make his or her appetite worse.

  • Make meal time a happy time.

Mouth sores

  • Offer soft foods that are easy to chew.

  • Avoid foods that irritate the mouth, including:

    • Citrus fruits or juices (such as orange, tangerine, grapefruit)

    • Spicy or salty foods

    • Rough, coarse, or dry foods (such as raw vegetables, crackers, pretzels, chips,toast)

  • Cut foods into small pieces.

  • Serve foods cold or at room temperature. Hot foods may irritate the mouth and throat.

  • Use a blender to make foods softer and easier to chew.

  • Add sauces or gravies to food to make them easier to swallow.

Taste changes

  • Offer salty or seasoned foods.

  • Use flavorful seasoning on foods.

  • Marinate meats in fruit juice, teriyaki sauce, or Italian dressing.

  • Try serving foods at different temperatures.

  • Offer foods that look and smell good.

  • Keep your child's mouth clean by rinsing and brushing.

Dry mouth

  • Try sweet or sour foods and drinks such as lemonade (but not if mouth sores are a problem).

  • Offer hard candy, popsicles, ice chips, or chewing gum.

  • Offer softer foods that may be easier to swallow.

  • Keep your child's lips moist with lip balm.

  • Offer small, frequent sips of water.

  • Offer foods that have more liquid in them.

Nausea and vomiting

  • Try easy-to-digest food such as clear liquids, gelatin, toast, rice, dry cereals, and crackers.

  • Avoid foods that are fried, greasy, very sweet, spicy, hot, or strong-flavored.

  • Offer small, frequent meals.

  • Offer sips of water, juices, sports drinks, or other beverages throughout the day.


  • Try to avoid high-fiber foods, including:

    • Nuts and seeds

    • Whole grains

    • Dried beans and peas

    • Raw fruits and vegetables

  • Try to limit greasy, fatty, or fried foods.

  • Limit gassy foods, including:

    • Beans

    • Cauliflower

    • Broccoli

    • Cabbage

    • Onions

  • Offer small, frequent meals and liquids throughout the day.

  • Limit milk and milk products if lactose intolerance is a problem.

  • Offer plenty of liquids throughout the day.


  • Offer high-fiber foods, including:

    • Whole grain breads and cereals

    • Raw fruits and vegetables

    • Raisins and prunes

  • Drink plenty of fluids; hot drinks are sometimes helpful.

  • Keep the skin on vegetables when cooking them.

  • Add bran or wheat germ to foods such as casseroles, cereals, or homemade breads.

Tooth decay

  • Use a soft toothbrush and take your child to the dentist regularly.

  • Encourage rinsing the mouth with warm water when gums and mouth are sore.

  • Encourage gently brushing teeth after eating meals and sweets.

  • Limit foods that stick to the teeth, such as caramels, taffy, gummy candy, or chewy candy bars.

The treatment of cancer can be hard for anyone of any age. Supportive care (treatment of disease side effects or symptoms) from your child's health care team can make the nutritional part of treatment less difficult. Suggestions for creating a child-centered environment, making tasty, high-calorie snacks, and possible alternatives to oral nutrition are a part of the supportive care included in the treatment of cancer.

Every child is different and every child tolerates treatment differently. Your child's doctor and health care team will discuss the best method of promoting healthy nutrition during your child's treatment.

Nutritional Requirements for a Child With Cancer - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: Topiwala, Shehzad, MD
Last Review Date: 2015-06-10T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2015-08-17T00:00:00
Posting Date: 2008-11-30T00:00:00
Published Date: 2015-08-17T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-03-30T00:00:00
© 2015 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

I would like to:

Are you sure you would like to cancel?

All information will be lost.

Yes No ×

About the provider search

This search will provide you with WellSpan Medical Group and Northern Lancaster County (Ephrata) Medical Group primary care physicians and specialists. If we don’t have a WellSpan Medical Group physician to meet your criteria, the search will expand to include community physicians who partner with WellSpan Medical Group physicians through the WellSpan Provider Network or provide care to patients on the Medical Staffs of WellSpan’s Hospitals.


Schedule Your Next Appointment Online with MyWellSpan

Use your MyWellSpan patient portal any time to view available appointments, and pick the date and time that best suits your schedule.

Go to MyWellSpan

New to this practice?

If you don't have a WellSpan primary care provider and would like to schedule a new patient appointment with a provider who is accepting patients, just log into your MyWellSpan account, and go to the Appointment Center section. As you progress through the scheduling process, you will be able to see the offices that are accepting new patients in relation to your zip code. If you are not enrolled in MyWellSpan, go to, call 1-866-638-1842 or speak with a member of the staff at a participating facility to sign up. New patient scheduling not available at all practices/programs.

Already a patient at this practice?

If you already have a relationship with a WellSpan practice, simply log into your account, and go to the Appointment Center section. As you progress through the scheduling process, you will be able to schedule an appointment with any provider or practice that already counts you as a patient. Online scheduling varies by practice/program.