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Newton-Wellesley Hospital Bringing 'Healthy Habits' to Cancer Patients, One Meal at a Time

Healthy Habits Kitchen has partnered with the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital to provide healthy, home-delivered meals for cancer patients.

How much thought will you put into your lunch today?

When it's mealtime, it's easy to take for granted what we choose to eat. But for many patients at Newton-Wellesley Hospital's Vernon Cancer Center, those three meals can sometimes be a daunting task.

"We eat three times a day and we can just stop by somewhere and pick something up, but for a [cancer] patient who is at home and too tired to get up, it's a big deal," says Newton-Wellesley Hospital Dietician Christina Chiu. 

As a way to help cancer patients tackle home cooking and sometimes difficult dietary restrictions, the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital has teamed up with Wellesley's Healthy Habits Kitchen to provide home-delivered meals to cancer patients.

Launched in September 2012, the program has served roughly two dozen patients who live at home and are on fixed incomes or require strict diets in their recovery process. The meals come at no cost to the patients and are funded through the Vernon Cancer Center's foundation.

"Just because [the patients] are in a bind or they're not able to make meals, we don't want them to be compromised in their ability to eat optimally in treating their disease," Chiu says. 

Low-fat, low-sodium, whole grains, five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day; these are just a few of the diet requirements some cancer patients face on a day to day basis, Chiu says.

But these restrictions are no challenge for the folks at Healthy Habits Kitchen.

"All our meals are 400 calories or less, 30 percent fat or less, 800 milligrams of sodium or less, and a lot are much lower than that. So, we specifically designed these [patient] meals to be on the very low side to meet those needs," says Healthy Habits Kitchen owner Sue Schochet.

. Meals include pre-measured proteins, vegetables, spices and a recipe that help home cooks whip up a dish in 30 minutes or less. They can be picked up in-store or, in the case of the Vernon Center program, shipped to homes in insulated boxes.

Schochet, a Newton resident, explains that each month, Healthy Habits' Vernon Cancer Center program sends out a box of four frozen meals that feed four to six people each. The boxes contain a variety of proteins (fish, chicken, beef) as well as one vegetarian dish.

Schochet designs each month's meal boxes based on patients' dietary needs and tastes, information that is provided by Chiu and the cancer center. Typical of her normal, retail menus, Schochet also factors in seasonal ingredients.

With her business around for more than five years, Schochet says she has hundreds of recipes in her meal database. Some of the Vernon Cancer Center favorites include the Pretzel-Crusted Chicken, Vegetable Lasagna and Marinated Steak Tips.

"I sit down at the beginning of a four-month period and think through what's on our retail menu, what things will translate well to the Vernon Cancer Center's menu and what tweaks we need to make," Schochet says.

Chiu explains that the patients are placed on the program for a three-month cycle. After those three months, new patients are brought in.

"This program is meant to help [patients] at a time when they are most sick or most in need of these meals," Chiu says. "Oftentimes that's when our patients are still recovering or not able to go to the grocery store."

After a few months on this Healthy Habits Kitchen program, Chiu says patients learn what they should be eating and, once they get their strength back, are able to go to the store with a grocery list in mind. 

The Healthy Habits Kitchen meals also give patients confidence in their cooking abilities and allows them to share tasty, healthy meals with spouses, family and friends, Chiu says.

For Schochet, helping people eat right and build confidence in cooking is what her business is all about. But this program, she says, is something a little more.

"It's giving back to the community, it's helping people in need," Schochet says. "It's a fulfilling aspect of what we do...we're trying to help caregivers care for patients who are going through a tough time. If we're a part of that, we're honored."

Sherborn resident Elaine Donahue, who is undergoing radiation treatment at the Vernon Cancer Center, says the Healthy Habits program has "taken the worry out of 'what are we going to have for dinner' every night."

Donahue says she has been on the program for two months, a blessing for her busy life. Not only does she handle her own treatment, she works full-time and takes care of her husband who is also receiving treatment for cancer.

"After I have worked and gone to radiation I am tired and the last thing I want to think about is what to have for dinner or what I need to pick up at the grocery store," Donahue says. "It is great to be able to get home and already have all the ingredients to prepare an easy healthy and delicious meal."

Over the last two months, Donahue says she's shared meals with her husband as well as her mother, and all three remain impressed with the flavor, quality and freshness of the ingredients. 

"It is one less thing that I need to concern myself with during the day. By having these meals, my time is freed up to unwind after a long day, spend some time with my husband, exercise with my dogs and have peace of mind that we are eating healthy," Donahue says.

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