How to Uplevel Snacks for Cancer Treatment

How to Uplevel Snacks for Cancer Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

When you’re headed to the hospital for an intense treatment like chemo, external or internal radiation, or surgery, snacks might be the last thing on your mind, but keeping your energy up and blood sugar stable can help you face your treatment with strength. It’s a good idea to pack a bit more than you anticipate wanting, because hunger is particularly fickle during treatment cycles
Studies show that protein is extremely important during treatment and recovery, because it helps maintain muscle mass and also contains amino acids which counteract muscle wasting. So a good general guideline is to opt for single servings of high protein, easily digestible, and easy-to-transport snacks or mini-meals. Beyond those nutritional parameters, the most ideal snack choices will depend on what you like (and what you can tolerate) and what kind of treatment you’re going in for.

Snacks for chemo

For chemo treatments—particularly for long sessions that can span multiple mealtimes—you want to have an array of options. Your body is going through a lot as it’s receiving chemo meds, so you want to give it as much nutritional fortitude as possible. At the same time, treatments can spark nausea episodes that will change what you’re able to eat, so menu planning requires a delicate balance. 
To start, think about assembling a small picnic of tiny things or packing for a picky toddler before a very long flight. Include options: some sweet and some salty, some solid and some liquid, some hot (or microwavable, if your clinic or hospital has a micro you can use) and some cold. Double up on your personal safe foods (and keep in mind that food with a strong smell can quickly overpower a room). This could look like so: a few Maple Sea Salt Rx Bars, a small bag of salted almonds, some organic saltine crackers, a single serving of ginger bone broth, a small bag of baby carrots, a mini-cooler of ice chips, and some coconut water.

Snacks for internal radiation and surgeries

Internal radiation and surgeries (like tumor removals) may require a hospital stay. The length will vary depending on your treatment, but whether it’s a quick day surgery or includes some overnights, it’s wise to plan ahead for your nutrition. Hospital food has come a long way at many institutions, but you can still supplement with your own tried-and-true favorites from home during your recovery period. 
As your body works to repair itself from the trauma of surgery, other functions like temperature regulation and digestion get less attention, which means that you want to choose snacks that are nutritionally dense (meaning high in calories), easily digestible, and, ideally, rich in protein and amino acids to help your tissues rebuild. It’s quite common to get constipated after surgery, especially if you received general anesthesia, opiate pain management, or anti-nausea drugs because those drugs slow down the movements of your intestines, so try to keep fiber in the mix and hydrate as much as you’re able—both will get your digestive system moving sooner rather than later. 
Smoothies are fantastic options for fiber, protein, and hydration, but they are difficult to transport and safely store, so if possible, enlist a loved one to make and bring you one when they visit (check out these recipes if you don't have a go-to of your own). Whole foods are always best, but these are extenuating circumstances, so consider packing some organic protein powder that agrees with your stomach (be sure to test digestibility ahead of time). Round out your hospital-nutrition bag with a bulk bag of salted nuts, some microwaveable bone broth, and some of your fave energy bars.

Snacks for external radiation

External radiation is typically a quick outpatient procedure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need food: the combination of pre-treatment jitters, and the sometimes-annoyingly-long time it takes to get to your room result in boomerang hunger on the way home from your treatment. Acute nausea may or may not be an issue—if you’re mercifully free of this side effect, prepping a small meal or big snack is a great plan. 
As during other cancer treatments, your cells and tissues need protein to rebuild and repair, so choose a safe protein and build around that. Plant-based folks can start with organic almond butter (raw and/or sprouted choices are easier to digest) and fill celery ribs, spread on apple slices, or mix with shredded dried coconut and chopped dates. If you eat animal protein, slices of grilled chicken and cheddar cheese alongside some baby carrots and celery are quick, nutritive, and should tame your hunger without taxing your digestion.

How do I pack all this food?!

Your treatment snack bag can seem like a lot of food once you start packing, so get strategic with transportation. A small car cooler is an awesome thing to have (go Yeti for a splurge, or Playmate for budget), particularly if you’re going in for shorter treatments and like to have something to eat on your way home. For bringing food in with you, PackIt freezable coolers will save you from a life of leaky icepacks, plus they are shaped to stack neatly in any kind of bag. Plastic is problematic, because it can contain toxic, carcinogenic, and hormone disruptive ingredients that can get into your body, so choose BPA-free. Or opt for glass or silicone containers, like these tiny jelly jars and snack bags—and don’t forget utensils.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at