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Dear Iris: Eating Struggles... Any tips?

Dear Iris,

I was diagnosed with throat cancer, and eating is getting pretty tough. Chewing, swallowing, and tasting food—it's all a struggle now. I'm stressing about getting enough nutrition. Have any food tips or tricks that could make this whole eating thing easier? Need some help to make sure I'm not feeling worse because of what I eat.


Dear P,

I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble chewing, swallowing, and tasting food. These common side effects of head and neck cancer and treatment can be burdensome and there are several things you can try that might help.

Choose soft, moist foods because they don’t require as much effort to chew and swallow. Things like soups, stews, scrambled eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, and cream of wheat work best. Other foods to try include: mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, ripe avocado, pasta casseroles, tofu, tuna, and slow-cooked meats like shredded chicken or meatballs (made with your choice of ground turkey, beef, lamb, or lentils/eggplant). Whenever possible, add sauces or gravy to fork-tender foods like poached fish or well-cooked vegetables to boost flavor and reduce the amount of chewing and swallowing.

In addition to soft foods, it can be helpful to make homemade smoothies/protein shakes. Blending a variety of fruits (fresh or frozen) with protein, healthy fats, and even vegetables is a great way to get nutrients in when your mouth and throat are sore. Here are 3 recipes to get you started that are chock full of nutrients and flavor.

Finally, a tip for coping with taste changes: Experiment with smell, texture, and temperature of foods. This works because flavor in food isn’t only based on how it tastes on your tongue. Aromas, textures, and variations in hot/cold temperatures are a big part of how the brain detects flavors while you eat. Knowing this you might try smelling ground cinnamon while you drink a smoothie. Or play around with alternating bites of warm/cold food to see if it improves your perception of taste. 

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Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN

Senior Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist

Iris Oncology

Stephanie Meyers is a Senior Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Iris Oncology with 25 years of experience delivering compassionate and evidence-based nutrition care to those affected by cancer. She’s the former Nutrition Manager at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and presents seminars worldwide on mindful eating, family nutrition, and cancer survivorship. Stephanie is also the author of, End the Mealtime Meltdown: Using The Table Talk Method to Free Your Family From Daily Food Struggles and Picky Eating and the founder of Families Eating Well, a nutrition practice helping parents coach healthy eating skills in kids. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.