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Cooking Tips for Patients Undergoing Chemo: Making Food Taste Good Again

April 2016 Vol 2 No 2
Chef Ryan Callahan
Author of Cooking for Chemo...and After! and Cooking for Kids with Cancer

In spring of 2013, my mother was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer. She subsequently had a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and 6 rounds of intense chemotherapy with regular doses of weaker chemotherapy drugs for 1 year. This was not a new experience for me. Both my grandfathers and my best friend in college had cancer. The difference was that my mom survived, and they did not. So, for me, the phone call regarding my mom’s diagnosis and what was going to happen sounded like a death sentence.

I thought I knew what the “C” word entailed-months of starvation, loss of appetite, malnutrition, and horrible side effects, until finally you withered away like a basil plant after the first frost. This was too much to bear. I swore that I would do whatever it took to keep my mother happy and healthy while she went through her cancer treatments; this time I would be the caregiver.

Combating Chemo’s Side Effects

Being a chef, I had an entire arsenal of cooking knowledge at my disposal to combat side effects such as metallic tastes, loss of appetite, and mouth sores. In my role as a full-time caregiver I was tasked with coming up with recipes that my mother would find appetizing. Before chemotherapy, this was easy. I would simply make some of my (famous-to-my-family) Italian cuisine, and everyone would be impressed and enjoy every bite.

However, once chemo began, this changed. With chemo came the side effects of dehydration, nausea, mouth sores, metallic tastes, and loss of appetite. So, my focus shifted to find recipes and meals that would take these side effects into account, and would help to rebuild my mom’s body.

Her first round of chemo was by far the worst; no matter what you hear, it is hard to properly explain the experience. I tried many different foods and cooking styles, even interchanging ingredients in recipes to try to combat the side effects of chemo. By the second round of chemotherapy, I finally figured out how to cook for my mom and combat these debilitating side effects. I realized that I needed to shift the focus from what I was cooking to how I was seasoning and preparing what I was cooking.

Cooking Tips for Patients with Cancer

During this time my cookbook Cooking for Chemo…and After! was born. I began documenting the tasting notes and recipes that I wrote down as I made dishes for my mother, and set out to write a pamphlet to be distributed to local cancer support groups. My wife finally convinced me that this 10-page pamphlet needed to be easily understood to be applied by people who had never cooked before, as well as by experienced cooks. She convinced me to turn it into a cookbook.

The book is focused on combating the food- and drink-related side effects associated with chemotherapy, such as metallic tastes, mouth sores, and loss of appetite. The cooking techniques in Cooking for Chemo can be applied to any person, in any situation, and can be used by anyone who has any dietary restrictions. It will teach you how to make food taste good again for those undergoing chemotherapy.

The book offers basic concepts and techniques that will give you a different view on cooking and eating, such as:

1. Roundness of Flavor

Roundness of flavor is an understanding that all the flavors you taste (salty, savory, spicy, sour, sweet) and all the senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, sound) are typically held in a state of natural balance that is unique to you.

Chemotherapy misaligns your senses as well as your ability to taste distinct flavors. You will learn how to rebalance the flavor in your food for your specific palate changes, and how to adjust for your other senses that are out of alignment. You will do this by first learning what each flavor is, and where it is found naturally in the world. This allows you to identify which flavors are missing or are changed and how to compensate for these changes quickly and simply.

2. Palate Cleansing

Palate cleansing is the ultimate finishing move to help you combat metallic tastes. If you finish your dishes with a subtle and imperceptible sour note, it will leave your mouth feeling clean and refreshed and encourage you to take another bite. To do this, we add 1 or 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar to each dish, followed by an equal amount of sugar, to mask the sourness of the vinegar but to allow it to work its magic. We know that we have added a sufficient amount of vinegar when the dish is lighter (in weight) and leaves your mouth feeling clean, without altering the flavor of the dish.

3. Sanitation

Having a sanitized kitchen, and learning how to properly prepare and store food, are key to avoiding accidental food poisoning in someone receiving chemotherapy. Patients receiving chemotherapy have compromised immune systems, so preparing food requires extra care. Illness caused by external factors, such as food poisoning, can take a significant toll on anyone receiving chemotherapy, so always make sure to cook foods thoroughly and to store your foods properly.

Enjoying Food During Chemo

These are simple forms of complex ideas I discuss in detail in my cookbook. These and other important cooking tips and information are essential for good eating and for enjoying food again during chemotherapy.

After learning these cooking secrets, I watched my mother, who was in the midst of chemotherapy, reach for her second bowl of chicken and dumplings. I realized that I had to share everything I was doing to help her eat with others who were going through chemotherapy.

Watching my grandfathers and my best friend starve before they died from cancer was ultimately what motivated me to prevent the same fate for my mom. I wish I had the culinary knowledge and life experience when my grandfathers and best friend were receiving chemotherapy. It would have, at the very least, given them a better quality end of life.

The ultimate goal is to help you enjoy your food again during chemo and as a survivor. For more information, visit

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