Foods to Give Sick Kids

Last updated March 8, 2023
By Renae D'Andrea

What should you feed your child when they are sick? With flu season here and so many colds and illnesses going around, the topic of food for sick children comes up quite frequently!

Whether your child has a sore throat and high fever, the stomach flu, or simply a stuffy nose, the general guidelines for sick children are going to be the same.

Hydration is Most Important for Sick Kids

When young children (and adults!) are sick, it isn’t uncommon for them to only have a little appetite. And it’s easy as parents to fixate on our children’s lack of eating solid foods. But when you have a sick toddler, the hands down most important thing to focus on is hydration! Not food.

This goes for if your child's illness is a stomach bug, if they have a high temperature, or anything else! Dehydration is a common concern with kids when they are sick. They often become lethargic or just don't want to drink anything when they don't feel well.

It's an even bigger concern if vomiting or diarrhea are involved, as they are losing fluids as well as not consuming them.

The Signs of Dehydration in Children

Here are the signs of mild to moderate dehydration to watch out for, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Plays less than usual
  • Urinates less frequently
  • Parched, dry mouth
  • Fewer tears when crying
  • Sunken soft spot of the head in an infant or toddler

The signs of severe dehydration are: 

  • Very fussy
  • Excessively sleepy
  • Sunken eyes
  • Cool, discolored hands and feet
  • Wrinkled skin
  • Urinates only one to two times per day

If you see any of these during your child's illness, it is important to notify your healthcare provider for guidance.

Sick child and mom

How to Help Prevent Dehydration in Babies and Toddlers

So we know that we want to be offering plenty of fluids to our sick kids, but just how do we do that? The easiest and best thing is going to be to offer frequent sips of plain water to them. 

But if your child doesn't usually like water, or doesn't feel like drinking it when they're sick, what should you do?

First, know that any type of fluids count here! Trying to ensure your child drinks frequently and aiming to push fluids is one way to approach it. But many foods have a high water content, too!

When it comes to food, think things like

  • Watermelon and other melons
  • Stone fruits like peaches and plums
  • Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits
  • Strawberries
  • Fresh vegetables like zucchini and cucumbers
  • Fruit juice popsicles
  • Soups like chicken soup or tomato soup
  • Milk, ice cream, and yogurt

As you can see, most fresh fruit has a high water content. Focusing on any of these foods is a great way to help your child stay hydrated if they don't feel like drinking anything but have an appetite.

Electrolyte drinks for rehydration

If you see signs of dehydration that are more moderate or severe, your doctor may advise you to give an oral rehydration solution. This is also common in the case of diarrhea or vomiting. 

Oral rehydration solutions are commercially available as something like Pedialyte here in the US.

But a simpler and cheaper packet version is also available that can be mixed with tap water. This packet version, based on a World Health Organization formula, is used across the world. It effectively provides electrolyte solutions in combination with the right fluids to help treat dehydration in all ages.

In some less severe instances, providing your child things like orange juice or other citrus juices can help with rehydration as well. Sometimes your doctor might advise you to add a small amount of salt to these juices as well to help with the proper electrolyte balance.

If using these drinks specifically to address dehydration, be sure to consult your healthcare provider first!

What Foods to Give Sick Toddlers and Preschoolers

It used to be the recommendation to feed sick kids a bland diet to help them get better quicker. Think BRAT diet foods, like bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. It was especially recommended for kids with diarrhea as a form of gut rest.

We now know, though, that that is not the best way to go. One of the best things you can do for. your sick kids is to offer them a normal diet full of nutritious foods. They need calories, protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals to get better quicker. BRAT foods generally don't provide enough nutrients and can mean a longer recovery period.

Now that doesn't mean that you should stress about what food they are eating when sick. Remember, hydration and getting plenty of fluids is most important! But it does mean that you don't need to restrict what they eat due to being sick. Continue to offer them normal options, including normal, healthy foods, to give them the nutrients they need to get better.

Foods to Give a Toddler With an Upset Stomach

If your child is suffering from an upset stomach or other stomach issue, there is no need to restrict them to a bland diet. But avoiding greasy, fatty foods is still going to be a good idea in the initial stages of illness. 

Sticking to some more simple foods that are starch heavy, like plain pasta or dry toast, can help to keep their stomachs from revolting and are good choices. But there is no medical need to limit them to bland foods, especially if your child seems to be tolerating food well in general.

Regardless of your child’s illness, if they have lost some of their appetite then focusing on small, frequent meals can help. Think about it from your own point of view- if you don’t feel well and someone presents you with a huge meal, it can be really hard to eat it. Having smaller meals and snacks goes over better for adults and children, and helps to encourage more intake.

What Should Babies Eat When Sick?

If you have a newly eating baby in those first 6 months or so of eating, getting sick could throw a serious wrench in their desire to eat. Just like with older kids, the important thing to focus on for sick babies is still going to be hydration and lots of fluids.

Pumped breast milk

The good thing about them still having a diet with a significant amount of breast milk or formula in it is that they will often revert back to only wanting their milk when they are sick. That gives them a leg up compared to older kids. They are still getting a significant number of calories with the breast milk or formula, as well as fluids to prevent dehydration.

If you find your baby unwilling to drink their breast milk or formula, or with any of the signs of dehydration listed above, that is a red flag. Consult with your pediatrician or other healthcare provider immediately.

If your baby wants to nurse more frequently or drink more from the bottle while sick, though, go for it! It’s okay for them to focus primarily on their milk until they are better. Breastmilk and formula still have a large amount of calories and fluids for them, and is a good way to help them get better!

When it comes to the best foods to give or to avoid for sick babies, there are no special recommendations and they will do well with the same recommendations as toddlers and older kids above.

How to Get Back to a Normal Routine

When kids are sick, routines and rules tend to go out the door. That’s certainly not something to feel guilty about, ever! I still recommend doing your best to stick to a normal feeding environment when possible, but simple changes to help them feel better are never a bad thing.

Once your child has recovered, though, it is important to get right back into the normal swing of things. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from parents that things went off the rails after their kids were sick and they never got back to their previous feeding routine. 

I don’t say this to scare you or make you think that you shouldn’t relax the rules some when they are sick. But rather, to help encourage you to have a return plan in mind so that things don’t carry on endlessly. (If you need help with getting back to a routine, or creating one in the first place, I'm here to help!)

Kids are smart, and if they see a window of opportunity to keep getting what they want even after they are better, they will take it! So once they are better, focus on getting back to your schedule, and making sure that you are following the Division of Responsibility!

Need help with mealtimes?

Mealtimes don't have to be full of battles! For help with how to structure meals so they are not full of battles over food and behaviors, grab the course Mastering Mealtimes

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