Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
Medically reviewed on July 24, 2017
You may find that cancer or cancer treatment has affected your sense of taste. Food may seem to lack flavor or taste too sweet, salty or metallic.
Usually these changes are temporary and will improve with time. In the meantime, do what you can to maintain your calorie intake and meet your body's protein, vitamin and mineral needs.
If you normally follow a specific diet, such as one that's low in sodium or fat or designed for people with diabetes, it may be necessary to put those restrictions aside for a while. You'll want to allow for more variety so that you can increase your chances of getting adequate nutrition. Check with your doctor to make sure it's all right to relax your dietary restrictions.
Here are some suggestions for selecting and preparing foods. Experiment with these ideas until you find combinations that appeal to you.
Note: If your mouth or throat is sore, avoid spices, acidic foods, and hot foods or beverages, which may be irritating.
If food lacks flavor
Try different sauces, marinades, seasonings and other ingredients. These can help perk up the taste of food.
While cooking, add:
- Barbecue sauce
- Extracts or other flavorings
- Meat marinades
- Soy sauce
- Spices and herbs
- Teriyaki sauce
Other suggestions to add flavor include:
- Bacon bits
- Chopped green or red bell peppers
- Chopped onion or garlic
- Ham strips
- Cheese, especially sharp cheese, such as sharp cheddar
- Sugar or syrup on your food. On your cereal, try brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, cinnamon, dates or raisins instead of white sugar.
- Salty foods. In addition, salty foods such as cured meats, cheeses and snack chips may have more taste.
If food tastes too sweet
Tone down overly sweet foods:
- Add a little salt or lemon juice.
- Add plain yogurt, buttermilk, instant coffee powder or extra milk to milkshakes, instant beverage mixes or commercially prepared nutritional drinks.
Try foods that are less sweet:
- Drink beverages such as diluted fruit juice, milk, buttermilk, lemonade, ginger ale or sports drinks.
- Choose desserts that aren't as sweet, such as yogurt, custard, pumpkin pie, fruit, baked fruit, fruit with cottage cheese, fruit crumble, plain doughnuts, or graham crackers.
In place of sweet snacks, choose other foods, such as:
- Chips or pretzels with dip
- Cottage cheese
- Crackers and cheese
- Deviled eggs
- Peanut butter
If syrup, jam or sugar tastes too sweet, try butter or margarine on cooked cereal, toast and pancakes.
If food tastes too salty
A little sugar may tone down the saltiness of some foods. Cook foods without adding salt or seasonings containing salt. Avoid processed foods that contain a lot of sodium. Look for products labeled reduced sodium or low sodium. Try bland, mild-flavored foods.
If meat doesn't taste right
If the meat is fresh and cooked properly, but it just doesn't taste right, serve other foods that contain protein, such as:
- Beans or peas in soups, salads or side dishes or as a dip or spread
- Cottage cheese
- Egg dishes
- Fish — fresh, frozen or packed in a vacuum-sealed pouch, as canned fish can have a metallic taste
- Instant breakfast-type drinks or other nutritional beverages
- Macaroni and cheese
- Peanut butter
- Tofu or tempeh
Other suggestions for meat:
- Try meat prepared in combination with other foods, such as chili, lasagna, spaghetti sauce, casseroles, stews or hearty soups.
- Try sauces, ketchup and other seasonings, which may improve the flavor.
- Try marinating meat, chicken or fish in marinades, soy sauce, sweet fruit juices, wine or Italian-style dressings.
- Try salty, spicy or smoked meats, such as seasoned beef steaks, pork loins, ham, sausage or cold cuts.
- Try high-protein foods that may taste better cold or at room temperature. Examples include cheese or cottage cheese plates; macaroni salads with shrimp, ham or cheese; tuna, egg, ham or chicken salad; cold meat or luncheon meat sandwiches; or cold salmon.
If your cancer treatment has weakened your immune system, some of these foods may not be safe for you. Practice food safety by keeping foods at safe temperatures. Don't let perishable foods sit out for more than an hour. Avoid unpasteurized juice, cheese or milk, and raw or undercooked meats.
- Foods that look appealing often taste better.
- Select foods with a variety of colors, temperatures and textures.
- Drink liquids often or use gum, mints or hard candies to remove a bad taste in your mouth.
- Try using plastic utensils if you have a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth when eating.
- Check with your dentist to see if you have any dental problems. Maintain good oral hygiene.
- Check with your doctor to see if your taste changes could be related to your medications. In some cases, your doctor may adjust your medications to reduce or eliminate side effects. Don't stop taking your medications unless your doctor tells you to.
- Check with a health care professional about mouth rinses.
If these measures don't help or if you're losing weight, ask your doctor or a registered dietitian for further advice.