So you've decided you want to help out a friend by making and taking her a home cooked meal? Great idea! But before you pull out the pots and pans, take a moment to consider: Are there things your friend shouldn't eat? Things she can't eat? What is going to be easiest for her to digest?

Everyone is different and every body will react differently to disease and treatment. If you take the time to find out what your friend's dietary needs might be, your efforts will not go to waste.

Cooking for someone who is ill or going through treatment requires a little extra thought. The following guidelines are general in nature but should help to  inform your decisions around preparing and cooking that special meal. 


Your desire to help is understandable and admirable, but you should always check if meals are needed and get an idea about the sorts of things that will be most welcome. Your friend or someone close to them can tell you both what she likes and what she's been advised she should or shouldn't eat. 

TAke extra care

Cancer treatments and disease can weaken the body's immune system, making it vulnerable to infections that a healthy body could more easily fight. Taking the following precautions will help to minimise the risk of infection:

Careful hand washing is especially important when you are cooking for someone with a weakened immune system.

Careful hand washing is especially important when you are cooking for someone with a weakened immune system.

  • Wash hands well in warm soapy water
  • Wash fruit and vegetables under running water. This goes for prepackaged “pre-washed” foods too, just in case
  • Use clean utensils and do not cross contaminate - Never use the same knife to slice vegetables that has been used to chop meat, unless it is cleaned thoroughly first.
  • Use different chopping boards for meat, fish and vegetables. Clean boards in warm soapy water or disinfect using 1/10 parts bleach and water
  • Avoid using raw vegetable sprouts such as been shoots and alfalfa, which can at times harbour harmful bacteria.
  • Cook foods well - underdone meat and fish are not recommended
  • Use a food thermometer to ensure large cuts of meat are cooked through
  • Refrigerate food after preparation
  • When serving, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
  • Label foods clearly including reheating instruction and expiry date
  • Do not offer to cook if you have a cold or may be carrying an infection

The American Cancer society offers more suggestions for preparing food for people with weakened immune systems.


Certain drugs may affect your friend's appetite and she could be feeling nauseous and unable to eat more than a little at a time.  If this is the case, pack meals into small containers which can be frozen  and reheated as needed. Snacks packed into small bags or tubs will also be welcome. Foods like nuts and crackers can serve to keep the nausea at bay and offer some nutrition to your friend when she can't face a whole meal.

use your nose

Sensitivity to smell is another side-effect your sick friend may experience. If she is nearby and you are cooking, you might want to close the door to contain the any strong smells. Offering foods that don't have strong odours will also help.

Tummy upsets and other side effects

Illness and treatment can play havoc with the digestive system and diarrhoea and constipation are not uncommon. If your friend is experiencing either of these there are certain foods that will be recommended and others best avoided. A low residue diet may be recommended and guidelines are available from Bowel Cancer Australia.

You may need to avoid foods that  sting the mouth or burn going down. Acidic and spicy foods can be problematic for some people, while others with mouth ulcers or gum problems can have difficulty with rough or crunchy foods and may need softer meals. Ideas for dealing with eating problems and suggestions of foods that are easier to eat are offered by the Cancer Society of New Zealand*.

Maximise nutrition where possible

  • Think fresh fruits and vegetables 
  • Provide protein for sustained energy and recovery
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Choose foods that are calorie rich
  • Encourage a steady intake of fluids


Don't push it

After all your efforts, your friend may simply not be up to eating your carefully prepared meal. Don't take it personally. Leave it in the fridge or freezer ready for when she's feeling better.

* For further information, and recipes see The Cancer Society of New Zealand's guide to Eating Well During Cancer Treatment