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Food for thought

Conquest - Fall 2012

Online cookbook offers nutritious recipes for patients in treatment and beyond

By Erica Quiroz

Margaret Raber works on one of the healthy recipes
from the new @TheTable online cookbook.
Photo: Erin McCormick

Two years ago, Joya Chandra, Ph.D., asked the question: Is there a relationship between the foods patients eat while on chemotherapy and their outcomes?

Her search for an answer is the basis for the new @TheTable online cookbook, which features more than 250 recipes, and caters to the nutritional needs of cancer patients, their families and the general public.

As part of MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital (CCH) and through the Optimizing Nutrition (ON) to Life Program — which promotes healthy eating habits in pediatric patients and survivors through multidisciplinary resources — Chandra, associate professor at CCH, and Rhea Li, a licensed research dietitian at the hospital, counsel patients on the importance of eating the right types of foods during and after treatment.

“As we spoke to some of the pediatric patients and their parents, we realized there was a real need to get practical information to them about healthy eating,” Chandra says. “So we started thinking about how we could provide a resource to patients while they’re in treatment or afterward.”

Chandra and Li initially thought about a hard copy cookbook but quickly realized patients would have more meal options and could access recipes easier in an online format.

Input from the cancer community

To gather enough recipes to fill a website, Li polled parents of children in treatment and found the majority were interested in meals that could be prepared quickly.

She then held several submission contests and received recipes from patients, staff members and various local chefs.

Initially, to be considered for the online cookbook, recipes had to meet certain criteria:

  • use 10-15 easy to find ingredients,
  • be prepared in 10 steps or fewer,
  • be prepared in less than an hour, and
  • have fewer than 400 calories per serving.

Submissions were then opened to include any recipe people were willing to share. Li and her team of nutrition experts made changes as needed.

“Some recipes we received had to be remade with substitute ingredients,” says Li, who oversaw the testing of the recipes. “But a healthy portion were left as is, for people who need to gain weight during or after their treatment.”

Li and Chandra say the benefit of having an online cookbook is the option to constantly change it and add more recipes.

To choose the best recipes from two years’ worth of submissions, an online cookbook committee was created.

Members of the CCH advisory group and MD Anderson’s Advance Team (a volunteer leadership board focused on community-based initiatives), along with volunteers and parents of patients all tested and rated their favorites.

Recipes were also prepared and served at MD Anderson’s Lantern Café to help the committee with feedback.

Once final recipes were selected and compiled, @TheTable received support from the Children’s Art Project and at events held by the Advance Team, such as the Santa’s Elves Parties 2011 and 2012.

The Gerber Foundation supported Chandra’s initial research and the Mr. and Mrs. David T. Herr family donated to the ON to Life Program.

Meals based on patients’ symptoms

People can search @TheTable by ingredients, type of dish or category. The advanced search option includes color, texture and taste.

Chandra says the additional features were included because many patients experience symptoms like cravings, fatigue or a change in their food preferences while on chemotherapy, which can negatively impact their nutritional health.

Rhea Li (center), licensed research dietitian, and Joya 
Chandra, Ph.D. (right), watch as intern Margaret Raber 
prepares a healthy version of macaroni and cheese from 
the @TheTable online cookbook.
Photo: Erin McCormick

“Through the symptom search feature, if patients have mouth sores, they can find foods with a softer texture,” Chandra says. “Also, for example, if they need to increase their iron intake, they can find foods based on that nutritional need as well.”

The site also has articles that promote healthy eating, showcases the latest and most popular recipes and is brightly colored to appeal to children as well as adults.

Chandra and Li say the next phase for the online cookbook is to expand its accessibility to smart phones and to continue growing the site with more recipes.

“The general public has been really enthusiastic about donating recipes for a good cause,” Chandra says. “I think people are excited to help because almost everyone knows someone who’s had cancer and has had difficulty with food and eating appropriately.”

“The main goal is to have nutrition play a more important part in our patients’ lives and to provide a cancer prevention tool for our community at large,” Li says.

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