We all know that eating well gives us energy, makes us feel better, and keeps our bodies strong to deal with whatever life throws at us. We also know that to reap these benefits, we need to eat healthfully on a consistent basis. But a heavy load at work and evening activities can derail our best intentions to stick to a healthy eating plan, and we see more processed-food wrappers in the garbage than we’d like to.
But, whether you’re in cancer prevention or treatment mode, eating healthful meals made without much fuss can become second nature.
“It takes a little elbow grease at the beginning to plan meals and shop but it does get easier,” says Jennifer Black, registered dietician, at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. What’s the key? Creating a menu plan for four weeks and then tweaking and recycling that plan as many times as you want.
Black says that when it comes to planning and preparing meals, there are two different diet streams: one for cancer prevention and one for during cancer treatment. “Getting enough calories and protein is paramount” for those in the latter category, Black says, explaining people undergoing cancer treatment need about 20 per cent more calories than usual in order to maintain muscle mass and repair damage to tissue. It can be tough because some treatments leave your appetite flat. “My biggest motto during cancer treatment is ‘make every mouthful count’,” says Black.
Here’s our plan to get your September off to a strong, delicious start. Revise and repeat every month, and if you stick with it, by Christmas you may be feeling a whole lot better.
SAMPLE ONE-DAY MENU
While the rule of thumb for healthy eating remains standard — eat fruit and vegetables, lean protein, dairy, whole grains — there are some things a person undergoing cancer treatment needs to do differently: add calories and protein, says Black. The easiest way, she adds, is to include high-fat dairy products.
The whole family can benefit from the same healthful meal. The person needing more calories and protein can ramp up nutrition with a boost of protein and fat in his or her serving. This said, the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. cautions that nutrition that’s good for cancer patients can differ from the usual guidelines for healthy eating. Notably, breast cancer patients with estrogen-sensitive tumours are often advised to forgo soy-based or enhanced foods. Consult with a specialized dietitian for an eating plan that is appropriate for you.
The following foods contain anti-cancer properties, such as antioxidants, which may protect your cells from damage caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Enjoy these as food, Black says; supplements (pills) don’t offer the anti-cancer benefits of whole foods.
In no particular order, they are:
- The cabbage (or brassica) family: including kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli
- Turmeric: add a teaspoon a day to soup or pasta
- Berries: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc. The darker the better
- Omegas: sources include salmon, flaxseeds, nuts, hemp (hearts)
- The allium family: including garlic and onions
- Beans and legumes: including black beans, lentils, chickpeas, and red kidney beans
- Citrus fruits: including oranges, lemons and limes
TOP 10 TIME-SAVING TIPS
Menu planning might look like a drag at first but imagine: you have a roadmap for precisely where you need to be. Pre-planned menus are an effective way to stay on track, and it gets easier to shop for and substitute ingredients as you get familiar with your plan.
- Create a meal plan for four weeks, Black recommends. At the end of every fourth week, start again at Week One. Keep workday meals simple.
- Save your plan and shopping list in a binder or on your computer. Review the menu every cycle, deleting the recipes you didn’t care for and adding recipes you’d like to try.
- Cook extra at dinner, and save it to eat for lunch the next day. All you need to do is add a piece of fruit and some snacks and you’re set until dinner.
- Give everyone a task: finding new recipes, grocery shopping, cooking, setting the table, cleaning up.
- Tape a week’s worth of meals to the fridge or a kitchen cupboard for a lightning-fast reminder of upcoming meals.
- Post a shopping list nearby, to which you can add items as you run out of them. Encourage everyone to contribute.
- Stock up on supplies: Shop for a month’s worth or more of healthy staples such as black beans, rice and canned tomatoes for the pantry, and twice a week for fresh produce, picking up dairy as you need it.
- Prep snacks: make sure you have granola bars, pudding and yogurt on hand as healthy go-to bites. Hard-boil eggs, too, and chop up fruit and vegetables for fast access.
- Ask for help/accept offers to help. If you don’t have the wherewithal to shop or cook, ask for help. Someone may also offer to make a casserole you can freeze for another day.
- Treatment or no treatment, there are days you don’t want to cook. It’s okay to eat a pre-made meal at those times, Black says, because it’s still better than nothing. Drop by a frozen meats specialty store, or sign up with a meal service in your city.
COOKING TECHNIQUES: THE BEST AND THE WORST
- Cook tomatoes in a little vegetable oil to optimize nutrients.
- Lightly steam vegetables to break down the fibre a bit.
- Choose to eat whole fruit and vegetables, which contain all their nutrients plus fibre.
- Eat food without bar codes or crinkly wrappers for maximum nutritional benefits.
- Don’t overcook vegetables. It can boil away nutrients, such as vitamin C, and taste.
- Avoid juice, both fruit and veggie. Juice lacks the fibre and some of the fruit’s nutrient content.
- Say sayonara to char-grilled foods. Those black grill lines on a steak are carcinogenic, the chemical reaction of high heat and fat. If you want to barbecue, use lean meat with all visible fat removed and don’t char it.
On the Web and Elsewhere
- Healthy U: the Government of Alberta’s healthyliving website. Check out the Healthy Eating Toolkit at healthyalberta.com
- National Cancer Institute (U.S.): see www.cancer.gov and type “nutrition in cancer care” into the search field
- EatRight Ontario: features an interactive meal-planner to target a variety of needs. Go to eatrightontario.ca, choose “menu-planning” from the “browse by topic” menu.
- Goes Down Easy: Recipes to Help You Cope with the Challenge of Eating During Cancer Treatment. Elise Mecklinger and Daniela Fierini, Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, 2006
- Great Food Fast: Dietitians of Canada. Bev Callaghan and Lynn Roblin, Robert Rose, 2000