Small Meals and Snacks

Author: Tracey Birnhak Nutritional Counseling Services
Last Reviewed: October 17, 2022

If you are being treated for cancer, it can be hard to meet your nutrient needs during meals. Smaller meals and snacks throughout the day are often easier to get in. Try to eat foods that work with side effects that you may have from treatment. For example, if you have mouth sores, choose soft, bland foods like scrambled eggs and yogurt.

Tips for Eating Small Meals and Snacks

  • Eat what you like.
    • Breakfast for dinner is a great small meal.
    • Eat when you are the hungriest. It may not line up with “normal” meal times!
      • If you are hungriest in the morning, make that your biggest meal and have smaller meals/snacks for the rest of the day.
      • If you are hungriest in the evening or at night, start the day with smaller meals and eat bigger meals later.
      • Keep snacks with you when you travel, in your car or bag. Have something close at hand.
      • Practice food safety– don’t eat undercooked meats. Refer to our article, “Food Safety and avoiding Foodborne Illness.
      • Ask your registered dietitian for meal and snack ideas, including smoothie and shake recipes.

How many calories do I need?

Each person needs a different amount of calories per day. Use this formula to figure out how many calories you need each day:

  • Divide your weight in pounds (lbs.) by 2.2.
  • Multiply (times) this number by 30.
    • Example: 150lbs divided by 2.2 = 68.18
    • 68.18 x 30 = 2,054 daily calories needed.

Take this total calorie number and divide by the number of meals/snacks you want to eat. Use this as a guide for the number of calories to have per meal/snack.

  • Divide your daily calorie needs by the number of meals/snacks you plan to eat that day.
  • Example: 2,054 calories divided by 6 meals/snacks = 340 calories per meal/snack.

What should I eat?


  • Choose calorie-dense foods. These are foods that give you the most calories per serving. Some examples of calorie-dense foods are red meats, pork, chicken, potatoes, brown rice, whole grain foods, nuts, nut butters, avocadoes, and more.
  • Increase your calories by adding gravy and sauces to meals. Add cheese to mashed veggies and tofu. Cream-based foods are often higher in calories.


  • You can also use high-calorie fluids as smaller meals/snacks, like full-fat chocolate milk, Carnation Essentials® (formerly Carnation instant breakfast), Boost Plus®, Ensure Plus®, milkshakes, smoothies, fruit nectar, juice, commercial eggnog, hot cocoa with cream, and whole/fortified milk.


  • You should have protein as part of every meal and snack.
  • Add protein by using smooth nut butters in smoothies, hot cereal with fruit and on bread.
  • Try vanilla protein drinks instead of milk in your cereal, pudding, coffee, milkshakes, and smoothies.

Other Small Meal and Snack Ideas

  • Try tuna, egg, chicken, tofu salad or hummus.
  • Have a cup of a cream-based soup.
  • Eggs (scrambled, hard-boiled) or an omelet with vegetables and cheese.
  • Make a mashed potato bowl topped with soft vegetables and ground meats or beans with gravy and cheese.
  • Refried beans and black beans (mashed) are soft, delicious and a great source of protein.
  • Mix ground chicken or turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes or noodles.
  • Baby food (in jars) is a low cost, ready to eat, portable snack.
  • Mix mashed bananas and smooth nut butters.
  • Try an avocado sliced with hummus or make guacamole.
  • Eat whole milk pudding, yogurt, ice cream, and sherbet.
  • Add fruit to hot or cold cereal.
  • Try a soft cheese, like ricotta or cottage cheese, with pureed fruit or honey.
  • Creamed, soft vegetables are great on top of mashed potatoes or with eggs.
  • If you are eating oatmeal, cream of wheat, porridge or grits:
    • Add in smooth nut butter, whey, or pea protein.
    • Soak overnight in milk.
    • Top with soft fruits for sweet or roasted veggies for a savory flavor.

If you are getting treatment for cancer and losing weight without trying, there are many ways to add calories to your diet. Let your provider know right away if you are losing weight. They will talk with you about how to add calories and can have you talk with a registered dietician (RD).

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