What to feed a sick toddler or child

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 01/10/2024
sick toddler lying on a sofa with a blanket

Feeding kids is hard work but the added stress when they are ill can cause our heads to spin with worry. When they are little they seem to pick up nasty bugs all the time and it can feel relentless! So I have put together this blog on everything you need to know on what to feed a sick toddler or child so you can get their nutrition and health back on track!

This blog dives deep into the importance of hydration and the best foods to hydrate them. What are the best foods for a sick toddler during common illnesses? Tips on feeding a child who won’t eat during illness and easy meal ideas for those stressful times.

Common illnesses that affect appetite in children

Some of the most common illnesses in children I look at in the blog and what foods to feed them include;  

  • Colds
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease

Reasons behind decreased appetite during sickness

A child’s taste buds may be dampened during sickness making foods not taste the same or so desirable. If they are feeling sick and vomiting then their appetite will be depressed. 

Viruses can prevent kids from tasting and smelling like usual, particularly with cold viruses, they get congested and the sense of smell is reduced, thus not tasting like normal. This can put them off foods or reduce the desire to eat. 

How long can a child go without eating when sick?

It is normal for a child’s appetite to reduce when they are sick and obviously this can be quite worrying. It really depends on the child’s  illness and symptoms as to when they will feel ready to eat again. Follow their lead and be guided by their appetite and when they are ready to eat again. 

As long as they are getting hydrated then they should be fine without food for a number of days. However if you are all concerned then I recommend going to get them checked out with your GP.

Nutritional requirements for sick toddlers and children 

There are specific nutrients to support recovery, however the main focus should be on keeping kids hydrated FIRST. They will no doubt eat more when they are feeling better again.

Having a balanced diet containing (carbohydrate, protein, healthy fats, dairy and fruits and vegetables) will be the best way to get all the nutrition they need. Remembering that building a nutritious diet backup should be guided by your child when they are ready. 

If they are able to eat or drink some fruit and vegetables then getting some vitamin C rich foods in the diet is great for the immune system. 

foods high in vitamin C including oranges, blueberries, tomatoes and peppers

Whilst vitamin C is important for helping recovery, adding a supplement is not necessary unless they have not been eating for a while. Fortunately these foods are also high in water so act as a good hydration tool. Toddlers only need 15mg a day and will get all the vitamin C they need from one of these examples:

  • ¼ cup of orange juice
  • 2 strips red bell pepper
  • 2 large strawberries
  • 2 tbsp broccoli
  • ½ – 1 kiwi

Other good sources of vitamin C include watermelon, blueberries, mango and cantaloupe melon. Also to note that breastmilk and formula are great sources of vitamin C too!

The importance of hydration during illness

During sickness more moisture is usually drawn out of the body such as through, sweating in a fever, producing more mucus, vomiting and or maybe diarrhea. So hydration is the MOST important factor during illness. 

a toddler drinking a glass of water

Water is the best form of hydration but if your child is not keen on water you can give them milk or other forms of fluid like smoothies. Rather than taking a whole glass at once it is better to get them to sip more frequently throughout the day. A cup with a straw can be a good way to do this. 

How much fluid should they drink?

Guidelines for fluid intake

For reference a medium size glass is 200ml. 

  • 7 – 12 mths (640 – 800ml per day)
  • 1 – 2 years (880 – 960ml)
  • 2 – 3 years (1040ml per day)
  • 4 – 8 years (1280ml per day)
  • 9 – 13 years (1520 – 1680ml per day)

If you have trouble getting your child to drink anything then here are some tips to help:

  • Offer regular opportunities to drink and leave them with a cup or bottle. Not forcing them to drink but there as a reminder.
  • Try using different cups or drinking bottles such as ones with straws or different spouts.
  • Try adding some ice cubes. Great for sore throats
  • Give them diluted squash for some flavour if not keen on water
  • Add some frozen pieces of fruit like strawberries

For more tips then you might like to check out my blog called: 11 tricks to get your child to drink more water.

If you are worried about them not being hydrated enough then it is worth trying a oral rehydration solution which you can make at home or buy sachets from the pharmacist. If you are worried at all then please see advice from a health professional.

Best foods for sick toddler or child 

best foods for sick toddlers including hydrating foods, healthy fats, vitamin C foods, carbohydrates and protein

For all types of sickness it is most important to keep them hydrated FIRST. Food and appetite may have decreased and keeping it plain with easily digestible options are the best foods to aid recovery, if they are wanting to eat at all.

Depending on what their symptoms are will depend on the best foods to give your sick toddler. Below I have put together some suggestions for different illnesses.

What to feed a sick toddler with cold, fever or sore throat

If they have a sore throat then they will likely only feel like eating soft and wet foods to soothe their throat. Here are some suggestions:

  • Smoothies and smoothie lollies
  • Ice lollies
  • Yoghurt
  • Smooth soups
  • Chicken broth
  • Pasta
  • Rice

If they don’t have a sore throat but they don’t feel like eating much or just one or two types of food then adding some small amounts of nutrient dense foods can really help. Try the following:

  • Adding a nut butter or ground nuts to porridge or favourite cereal
  • Sprinkle ground seeds such as flaxseed into cereals, yoghurt, or into a sandwich
  • Sprinkle grated cheese onto their meal
  • Stir some cream cheese, yoghurt or creme fraiche into a sauce or soup
  • Mix a little hummus into a sauce
  • Serve a little dip with some breadsticks, toast, pancakes. Such as hummus dip, mashed avocado or cheese dip.

what to feed a sick child vomiting

If they are vomiting or they have diarrhea then they will be losing alot of fluid.  It is unlikely they feel like eating but it is important to keep them hydrated and give them plenty of sips of water consistently throughout the day. 

In terms of foods, I would stick with plain foods to start with. These are foods that are more likely to stay down and give them a little nourishment until their appetite returns.

three crackers on a kitchen top
  • Plain boiled rice 
  • Plain breadsticks or crackers – are easy to digest
  • Toast
  • Plain pasta
  • Couscous
  • Plain potato
  • Porridge

If they are feeling up to eating more flavorsome food then here are some other suggestions:

  • Plain yoghurt
  • Bananas 
  • Seeds such as chia seeds are also good as you can sprinkle some on cereal or yoghurt
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables – cucumber, sweet potato and carrots

Feeding children when they have hand foot and mouth

Little ones’ mouths can be extremely sore making it very uncomfortable to eat. Similar to having a sore throat opt for soft and wet foods such as 

  • Smoothies and smoothie lollies
  • Ice lollies
  • Yoghurt
  • Soups
  • Chicken broth
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Porridge

If they can manage firmer foods then soft breads, crumpets, pancakes and muffins with a dip or soft topping,

Avoid acidic foods as these can make the throat even more uncomfortable. These foods include tomatoes, citrus fruits like oranges and or any fruit/vegetable juices.

Once their throats are healing then you can start to introduce other foods back into their diets.

what to feed a sick toddler who won’t eat 

If they won’t eat then you can’t force them to eat. Stick with the main focus of hydration as the road to recovery and you can add hydrating sources in other ways.

Hydration tips for sick toddlers who aren’t eating

  • Ice lollies that contain fruit juice
  • Homemade slushies – 100% fruit juice with lots of crushed ice cubes
  • Smoothies watered down
  • Watered down fruit juice (cold or hot)
  • Milk
  • Warm vegetable or chicken broth
  • Coconut water
  • Diluted squash drink

If they can and only want to eat one thing like toast then that is fine too. Serve up what they will eat as it is likely to be a few days or more before their appetite returns and then you can start offering variety again. 

Helping them get their appetite back after illness

Here are some tips for encouraging a sick toddler to eat again and get back to their normal routine. 

  1. Provide small, frequent meals instead of large portions 
  2. Make meals visually appealing and appetizing 
  3. Take the pressure off and don’t insist they eat
  4. Routine – start building a routine of meals back gradually when they are ready.
  5. Role model – 
  6. No praise for eating
  7. Incorporate their favourite flavors or textures into healthier options 

Common mistakes to avoid while feeding a sick toddler or child 

Avoid greasy and sugary foods such as fizzy drinks, spicy, strong flavours such as burgers, fries etc and anything that may aggravate the tummy and gut. These foods can make diarrhea worse. 

Avoid large meals and give small portions or snack sizes more frequently. 

Best meals when sick

hulk green pasta sauce served on a plate

Here are some suggestions on what to feed a sick toddler but, obviously, be guided by your childs appetite.

Want some more simple meal ideas for toddlers then grab my 21 nutritious easy meals for toddlers

2 Comments

  1. Ankit Adhikari

    Indeed a very informative post on children health

    Reply

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MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

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