Chef’s New Cookbook Helps Chemotherapy Patients Eat Their Way Through Treatment

Cook identifies what to adjust to make flavorful food for cancer patients.

authors Julie Brown Patton

When a St. Louis-based chef felt there ‘weren’t enough cooks in the kitchen’ generating tasty recipes tailored for those battling cancer, he created some. Then he combined his culinary theories into a how-to-cook guide. Now medical practice staffs can dish out a new tool and free webinar to chemotherapy patients seeking to avoid the dangerous weight loss that often accompanies this treatment.

Chef Ryan Callahan wrote Cooking for Chemo…and After! while serving as his mother’s primary caregiver when she went through chemotherapy treatment in 2013 for breast cancer. He learned through trial-and-error how to make food taste good again to her during chemotherapy, and wants to share those discoveries with other families facing similar challenges.

Many people receiving chemotherapy lose their appetite, which leads to rapid weight loss and dwindling overall body strength. Callahan explained he specifically wanted to create flavorful recipes that overrode the metallic taste chemotherapy patients encounter, as well as options that minimize the aggravation of treatment-related mouth sores.

“For this unique cookbook, I focused on techniques for palate cleansing and rounding out flavor, based on my years of experience and studying different cooking styles and methods. There’s a very specific way to season, prepare and create these recipes,” he said. “And, I wanted to keep my mom eating well, despite chemotherapy’s side effects.”

He’s quick to note the cookbook isn’t intended to replace recommendations of licensed dietitians, and that his food-related premises aren’t to be taken as official medical advice. “It’s my theory of how to properly season and use flavor in foods that’s going to help the most number of patients.”
Callahan drew on his restaurant knowledge over the past 15 years, from working at sandwich shops to fine dining establishments. His formal training came from the Jack E. Miller Hospitality Studies Center at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park.

His cookbook started as notebook sheets on which he chronicled changes his mother experienced, along with what flavor adjustments in recipes counteracted those changes. He had multiple conversations with his mother’s oncology team, cancer support group members, and a dietitian, who convinced him that his compilation reflected “one-of-a-kind data.”

Learning that health professionals were focused on “what” to eat rather than “how” to eat food during chemotherapy, Callahan cited a huge lack of emphasis on taste for patients. “I felt like there was too much scientific thought, and the human element was lost. You can tell people what they should and shouldn’t eat, but if the food doesn’t also taste good, they simply won’t eat it. By being able to enjoy the taste of food again, chemotherapy patients will eat more, and this will help prevent starvation during treatment.”

His original plan was to offer a straightforward pamphlet to issue at cooking classes and cancer-related events. However, his wife, Jessie, urged him to produce a complete compilation. Their collaboration resulted in a cookbook with advice for novice food preparers and also experienced cooks.

“You don’t have to be a foodie, or the world’s greatest chef, to use my recipes. They can help people in all stages of cancer, and I (figuratively) hold your hand from beginning to end. We did this cookbook to provide hope and inspiration to those facing cancer, and my real desire is to improve quality of life for those going through it,” he said.

Additionally, Callahan offers free Cooking for Chemo webinars for cancer organizations to teach participants the steps from his book. The 60-minute webinar includes a worksheet and question-and-answer session.

Callahan’s favorite recipe in the new cookbook: chicken and dumplings. “It was the one my mom was able to eat the most,” he said.

The cookbook is divided into six categories – main dishes, sides, breakfast, snacks, soups and smoothies.

Unlike other cookbooks with recipes ordered by time of day or type of food, Callahan said his recipes are categorized in the order of what patients can consume at different points during chemotherapy. “At the beginning of chemotherapy, patients can still eat heavy-weighted food items. But as they continue treatments, their stomachs and bodies are only able to handle light-weight foods.”

Because Callahan knows firsthand that time is a general challenge to caregivers of chemotherapy patients, he intentionally constructed his holistic recipes in a specific order – recipe name, ease of preparation, dish description, tasting guidelines, ingredients, flavor balancers, aromatics, recipe directions, and chef’s tips.

“The ability to learn and adapt quickly makes all the difference when trying to feed someone going through chemotherapy,” he said.

One cancer advocate called the cookbook’s suggested cooking item replacements for select foods “incredibly helpful.”

“I love all of the background information and reasons for using certain products,” said Samantha Green, national organizer for Crawl for Cancer Inc.

Cooking for Chemo may be ordered online via Amazon or Books A Million for $24.95 for a 250-page paperback edition, and also may be purchased at Barnes&Noble.

Callahan hopes to add chemo-friendly recipes for the holidays to his repertoire. He also blogs about cooking for chemotherapy and caters private events. Having lost both grandfathers and a best friend to cancer, this chef is fueled by wanting to help people become what he calls “cancer conquerors.”


Chef’ Website Cooking for Chemo:

Amazon Purchase of Cookbook:


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