Are you too tired to cook? You are not alone! Fatigue is the most common cancer treatment side effect and can last a few months or maybe even years. Basic tasks such as cooking, meal planning, or grocery shopping can suddenly become difficult. For many with low energy, it can be easier to simply skip meals, especially if you’re concerned with eating easier to prepare foods that aren’t normally a part of your diet. While you may fear that they aren’t the best choices, skipping meals or eating inadequately can be worse by resulting in muscle loss (causing energy to diminish even more), delayed healing, treatment delays until nutrition improves, and you can experience worse tolerance to treatments—increasing the risk for more side effects.
One of the most important goals during treatment is to ensure you’re getting enough calories and protein to prevent weight loss. Your body needs essential nutrients, calories, and protein in order to have the best chance of tolerating treatment and minimizing muscle loss. Muscle helps give you energy, supports your immune system, and will make recovery from surgery or treatment quicker. You will feel better if you are adequately nourished too. If you lose weight or your clothes are fitting looser, then this can be a sign of decreased muscle and or fat mass.
Additionally, the longer you eat inadequately the more likely your appetite will become poor. The hard part can be figuring out how to meet your needs when you don’t feel hungry or are fatigued, but hopefully this post will help make it a little easier for you to do so. The goal is to optimize your nutrition by getting creative with your meal preparation methods. Try maximizing your intake when your energy or appetite is the best. For example, if you are most hungry at breakfast, then you may want to make a good hearty breakfast to get in as much nutrition as you can. Also try eating on a schedule, or eating small amounts of food frequently, and don’t skip meals (even if you are just eating a few bites). Finally, try not to get too concerned about the quality of the foods you are eating during this time. Having something to eat is better than not eating.
Physical activity is also backed by research to help with decreasing cancer related fatigue by increasing oxygen flow, increasing hunger, and maintaining or increasing your muscle mass. It may seem like the last thing you want to do, but even light activity makes a big difference. Walking prior to a meal may have a big impact in appetite stimulation. Remember to rest when your fatigue is the worst.
How you can prepare prior to your treatments to maximize your nutrition and energy levels…
1. Try making batch meals, store meals in the freezer in Tupperware containers, and reheat them when you’re ready to eat.
If there is a day that is better for you to cook when you have the most energy, make use of that time by cooking in large volumes. Cook enough food to last you a few days or through the week. Or if you have a friend or family member who can help cook for you once a week then ask them to assist. When you really don’t have the energy to cook, you can just grab a Tupperware container from your freezer and heat it up.
2. If you have a Crock Pot or Instapot, try preparing batch meals with one.
The great benefit from this method of cooking is that you can throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and let it cook most of the day, which produces quite a few meals with minimal effort. There are many recipes online for Crock Pot’s and Instapot’s too.
3. Consider looking for food companies that are able to deliver cooked meals to your house.
Check to see what’s available in your local area. Some may be free or offer a discounted rate like Meals on Wheels.
4. Many local grocery stores have grab and go packaged foods.
Try to find options that are high in protein and calories if you aren’t able to eat well. Recommended choices include: single serve yogurt, cottage cheese, crackers and cheese, trail mix, cheese sticks, pudding cups, granola, granola bars, Kind bars, Cliff bars, applesauce, single serve oatmeal cups, kefir, ice cream, frozen yogurt, jerky, milk, dried fruit, and peanut butter pretzels, or even baby food…etc.
5. Find microwavable options.
Find frozen bagged vegetable steamers to heat up or you can microwave a sweet or baked potato topped with beans, avocado, and plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream), which can provide quick and healthy options. Popcorn is a good snack choice. Check your supermarket for other inspiring food choices.
6. Smoothies may be your new best friend.
Smoothies can be easy to swallow if you have mouth sores, are nauseous, or have no appetite. I wrote about this in a prior post—for smoothie ideas you can read more here.
7. Nutrition Supplements may also be an option if you don’t have a blender or have the energy to make a smoothie.
Most of these require minimal to no preparation and can be purchased at most grocery stores, drug stores, or online. I recommend keeping these in your fridge for the duration of your treatments, to have available on days that you have the least amount of energy and support from friends or family. Common nutrition supplements include Boost VHC (very high calorie), Boost, Ensure Plus, Carnation Instant Breakfast mixed with milk or milk substitute of your choice, or Orgain, Muscle Milk, among others etc… Most of these are lactose free and suitable for lactose intolerance.
8. Try healthier frozen meals such as Kashi, Healthy Choice, Amy’s, etc…
You can even make frozen black bean burgers, turkey burgers, Asian bowls, burritos, edamame, and many other options are available. See what you like and give it a try.
9. Grab and go fridge options.
Most stores carry hummus, which can be put on pita bread, pretzels, tortilla chips, crackers, or plain bread. Pre-made pesto is a good high calorie food that you can add to pasta, crackers, bread, or salads. Pre-made guacamole with tortilla chips, hand rolled lunchmeats or olives may be good snack choices.
10. Try making breakfast for lunch or dinner.
Many breakfast options can be prepared easily and quickly. Omelets or English muffins with spreads such as cream cheese, peanut butter or other nut butters, butter, cheese, or jams. Dry cereal with milk or milk substitute requires minimal effort. A bagel with cream cheese or other spread and a cup of oatmeal can be easy to make.
11. If you need inspiration for quick recipes then Cook For Your Life website can offer ideas for meal prep specifically for when you are fatigued.
Click on the recipes tab and then fatigue link (which is here).
12. Buy pre-cooked or pre-chopped foods to make meal preparation easier.
Trader Joes and other grocery stores have a great variety of product options (like fruits, vegetables, dips, pasta salads, tabouli, quinoa, rice paper tofu and veggie rolls, pesto, or pre-made salads).
13. Some stores have a food bar that you can get a meal on the go from.
Rotisserie chicken may also be an excellent option as it can provide you enough for multiple meals.
14. Easy to prepare meals to have readily available.
Stir fry’s, pastas, pasta salads, egg salad sandwiches, chicken salad sandwiches, other lunch meat sandwiches, canned soups, mashed potatoes, quinoa, hard boiled eggs, dry cereal with milk, grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna with crackers, bagel with cream cheese, canned salmon, canned lentils, canned beans, casseroles, canned chili, fish topped with salsa, homemade nachos, whole grain pasta with mushrooms, shrimp tacos, polenta, tofu, pita pockets stuffed with beans or meat and veggies, grilled chicken breast are some examples of simple meals that can offer a lot of protein, calories, and nutrients.
Overall, it’s best to experiment with some of these tips and come up with a plan that works for you. It’s also important to note that if you have easy, convenient, and pre-made meals or nutrition supplements on hand in advance, then you will be more likely to eat better, have better nutrition, and as a result have better treatment outcomes. Going through cancer treatments can require a great deal of planning, but know that it’s likely temporary and there is a lot you can do. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to have a better quality of life.