Kids Health

How Your Kid’s Eating May Change When They’re Sick, According to a Nutritionist

written by DANA PETERS, RD
sick child"
sick child
Graphics by: Anna Wissler
Graphics by: Anna Wissler

Mom truth: The season following fall is not winter, but rather never-ending-runny-nose-and-cough season. Sigh. Try as we might, there’s no way to keep our kiddos from being sick, so our best defense is learning how to help them feel better soon. Unfortunately, being sick can really throw off a child’s routine, including how they eat, sleep and play, so we have our work cut out for us.

Extra couch snuggles and cozy pajamas are definitely part of the feel-better-soon formula, but what about food? Many kids experience a drop in appetite or become more selective eaters when they’re sick, and that’s enough to make a mom worry! The reassuring news is that small changes in eating are normal during periods of illness, and kids typically bounce back once they’re feeling better.

Keep reading for some nutrition 101 for sick kiddos as well as tips on handling changes in eating that may occur.


Basic Nutrition Tips for Sick Kids

When kids become sick, they often don’t want to eat very much, and that’s okay for a short period of time. Instead, focus on hydration, especially for younger kids and for kids experiencing vomiting and diarrhea. Choose easy-to-digest foods and serve small portions at a time. Avoid pressuring your child to eat and allow them to enjoy their preferred foods.

If possible, add foods containing immune-supporting nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin D. While the research isn’t definitive, there’s some data to show these nutrients may reduce the duration of illness. You can find vitamin C in foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, and bell peppers. Zinc is found in nuts, seeds, meat, and dairy products. Vitamin D is harder to find in foods, but some sources are milk and dairy products, salmon, and eggs. Lastly, cold foods such as popsicles, smoothies, and yogurt may be soothing to sore throats.

Listed below are a handful of changes in eating that may occur and how to handle them. Remember, changes in eating are normal, but be sure to contact your child’s pediatrician if your child’s appetite doesn’t return once they start feeling better or if they start to lose weight.



Only Wants to Eat Bland and/or Beige Foods

Most of us, including kids, prefer easy-to-tolerate foods when we’re sick. Oftentimes, these are bland, beige foods such as crackers, plain pasta, bread, or rice. While we may not think these are the most nutritious foods, they still provide our kiddos with energy and sustenance, so let them eat what tastes good! Add some fruit, nut butter, or cheese, but don’t stress if your kiddo doesn’t touch them.


Prefers Liquids Over Solid Foods

Babies and toddlers often prefer to drink liquids over eating solids when they’re sick. For babies who are breastfeeding or drinking formula, allow them to nurse or have a bottle on-demand to help ensure they stay hydrated and nourished. For toddlers and older kids, try serving smoothie made with a protein source such as nut butter or yogurt to up their nutrient intake.


Struggles to Drink Liquids

On the other hand, some children struggle to drink liquids when they’re sick. If the plain taste of water is unappealing, try adding a small amount of fruit juice or an electrolyte drink such as Pedialyte or Nuun. Encourage kids to take small sips throughout the day instead of drinking a lot at one time. Foods containing water such as fruit, soups, and smoothies are a good option to maintain hydration as well. Lastly, a quick note on fruit juice: Due to their sugar content, fruit juices may worsen diarrhea. If you serve them, make sure they’re diluted.



Eats a Lot Once Feeling Better

Sometimes when a child’s appetite comes back, it comes back with a vengeance. You may notice a few days of increased intake, and that’s OK—let them eat! Continue to offer a variety of foods and allow for seconds, thirds, etc. as possible. Now may also be a good time to offer some new foods or foods they previously didn’t accept. Sometimes they’re more willing to try new things when their appetite comes back. After all, eating often begets eating.

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