Being Well

Quick Meal Ideas: Healthy Alternatives to Hospital Cafeteria Foods

Caregivers, family members, and friends of cancer patients spend a lot of time in hospitals. Finding quick meal ideas and healthy snacks you can keep on hand is important, but it's also a good idea to see what healthy choices are available at the cancer center cafe or hospital cafeteria.

Caregivers, family members and friends of cancer patients spend a lot of time in hospitals. That often means traveling to the hospital from home or work, and between running your own household and helping with your loved one, too. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for preparing or purchasing food, but finding quick meal ideas and healthy snacks you can keep on hand is important. If you’re not properly fueled with food that’s good for you, you might end up needing someone to take care of you.

With a little preparation, you can stock up on snacks and ready-to-eat meals that will keep you running longer. Some people are fine eating snacks as a meal, and some people need something more substantial. Here are some to-go snack suggestions and quick meal ideas to help keep you going.

Whole Fruit

Bananas and apples are self-contained fruits that don’t need cutting or packaging, and nature’s sugar will give you a good energy boost to your day. Of course, you’ll want to be careful when transporting bananas so they don’t get mushy or bruised, but they pack a nutritious punch.

Cut-up Vegetables

A bag of baby carrots is both filling and has that satisfying crunchy snack quality. Best yet, they don’t require washing or cutting. Buy a big bag and portion them out into smaller bags, or just get prepackaged snack-size bags at the grocery store. Stores often sell cut-up assortments of other vegetables, too.


You can buy individual, pre-packaged servings of hummus, guacamole and peanut butter, all of which make great dips for your vegetables. Dips often give you a punch of protein or energetic healthy fats, and single-serve packaging leaves you less containter to wash out at the end of the day.


With calcium and protein, yogurt keeps you fuller longer, so it makes a great snack for caregivers. Just keep some ice packs in your freezer, and bring it with you to keep your yogurt cool when you leave the house.


Snack bars and granola bars are a popular option to put in your purse or keep in the car. Try to find one with lots of protein and fiber and no added sugar. Fewer than five ingredients is a good target to aim for as well.

Trail Mix

Make your own with your favorite nuts, seeds and dried fruit, or buy it already made. Trail mixes (the ones without candy in them) offer some concentrated protein and a burst of fruit, and they have a long shelf life.


Spend 20 minutes at home one night making a bunch of sandwiches, then stick them in the freezer individually wrapped. Voila — you have a quick meal you can throw in a bag to bring with you. It will defrost within a few hours, so you can take it from the freezer first thing in the morning. This method works especially well with PB & J, most kinds of cold cuts, and chicken and tuna salad. Stick to whole grain and sprouted breads with seeds in them. You can also cut down on your gluten intake by using wraps or pita pockets.

Rice Bowl

Cook up enough rice to make several rice bowls (a set-it-and-forget-it rice cooker comes in especially handy here). Toss in some cooked veggies and chicken for an easy meal that’s easy to port and reheat in your plastic travel containers.

Chicken Caesar Salad

Everyone loves a classic. Rip up some Romaine lettuce and place it in a big mixing bowl. Next saute some skinless chicken breast in Caesar dressing, let cool and incoporate it with your lettuce, adding in some grated some Parmesan cheese. Add a splash more of your Caesar dressing, and some olive oil to help distribute it evenly without adding too much extra fat and cholesterol and toss. Cover with saran wrap, or better yet, portion it out in plastic to-go containers and store in your fridge. It’s a great meal to take with you as-is, or a quick, tasty filling for a wrap you can pack up and take with you.

Eating at the Cafeteria

Of course, hospitals have cafeterias, and sometimes you have no other choice. While they can be tricky to navigate, there are healthy options available. In general, think fresh, simple and unprocessed: Whole fruit or a fruit salad can give you a quick burst of energy, but you should avoid fruit dosed in thick syrups. Salads, too, can be a great way to get in some fresh produce, but take your dressing on the side and avoid drowning your healthy ruffage.

Soup can be a good spot of warm comfort food, but make sure you inspect it first to make sure it’s not from a can (cubed carrots and neon green Lima beans are a dead giveaway). And stay way from packaged sweets and salty snacks and opt for some packaged nuts for a crunchy bite filled with protein and healthy fats.

Whether you’re prepping some meals on Sunday nights or snagging some fruit on the go, it is possible to eat healthy while caring for your loved one with cancer. It’s important that you take care of yourself as a caregiver, and part of that is eating right.

UVA Health System’s cafeteria menus feature salad and smoothie bars, locally-sourced foods, soup stations and more, in effort to help visitors and patients have healthy food choices. The Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center’s Outtakes Cafe just reopened with new, healthy menu items as well!

Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan