Having a sick child is no fun!
From common colds to fever, diarrhea, or sore throat, little ones get sick often. There is a reason for this: kids’ immune systems don’t fully mature until they reach ages seven or eight, so they’re still quite susceptible to illnesses when they begin daycare or school (
Nutrition plays an important role in making sure kids stay hydrated and fueled, and certain foods might help speed up their recovery. Ultimately, the goal is to get kids feeling better, faster.
Here, we highlight the best foods to give your kids when they are sick, breaking down what the research says and listing food recommendations according to illness.
But first, let’s discuss some basic nutrition principles for what to do when a child is sick.
Keep in mind that many kids might not have an appetite, so try to provide them with foods that they will tolerate and are simple to digest. Above all, offer your children foods that they will eat.
A big priority in kids, especially the youngest ones, is hydration. That’s particularly true if they are vomiting or having diarrhea. Aim for food that will provide hydration and, again, that’s easy to digest.
Small, frequent meals are generally easier on the digestive system than larger ones. Aim for six small meals in a day every three or four hours versus the standard three larger meals.
A quick note: following these recommendations might help your kids feel better faster, but they’re not meant to replace proper medical care.
Don’t hesitate to see a pediatrician if your child is ill, especially if they’re experiencing severe symptoms like excessive vomiting or diarrhea, dehydration, a high fever, lethargy, or anything else that concerns you.
Here’s how to know when you should take your child in for emergency care for the flu.
A stomach bug can weaken kids, especially when they’re vomiting or having diarrhea. In fact, diarrhea and vomiting are the most common causes of dehydration in children, so it’s crucial to keep kids hydrated and replace any fluids lost (
Avoid greasy foods and sugary drinks, since they may make diarrhea worse. Instead, focus on smaller meals and diluted juices that are nutrient-dense and easy to digest.
Consider the following foods for a kiddo with digestive distress.
Rich in potassium, resistant starch, and pectin — a prebiotic fiber known to help improve digestion — unripe bananas can help reduce the frequency of diarrhea.
In one study, children aged 9 months to 5 years with acute watery diarrhea who ate cooked green bananas in addition to receiving standard clinical care were more likely to report symptom improvement within 72 hours than children who only received standard clinical care (
Salty but plain foods like crackers or pretzels may be beneficial because they can help replace some of the electrolytes lost through vomiting.
Simple starches like crackers or white bread are also low in fiber, which can be easier to digest, so kids will generally eat them with ease.
Chia is very high in soluble fiber, which can help minimize diarrhea. Soluble fiber binds to water and helps absorb the extra fluid, thus bulking up the stool and improving its consistency.
If your kids are not fans of chia seeds, try adding them to yogurt, a simple fruit smoothie, or plain cereal.
Yogurt or kefir with live and active cultures
You might not think of yogurt or kefir as foods to give kids who are having diarrhea, but new research suggests otherwise.
Fermented products like yogurt and kefir contain probiotics, defined as “live microorganisms” or beneficial bacteria naturally present in our bodies that improve digestion and fight harmful bacteria.
A 2021 review of 12 randomized controlled trials found that taking probiotics was associated with a reduction in the length of time kids experienced diarrhea, increased efficacy of treatment, and reduced time spent in the hospital (
The review found that Lactobacillus reuteri and Saccharomyces boulardii appeared most beneficial.
Many yogurts and kefir varieties contain a combination of live, active cultures. Just make sure to check the ingredients label.
When winter hits, be prepared for runny noses and sore throats. These foods may help.
Strawberries are loaded with vitamin C, with just a cup of offering 95% of the daily value. High doses of vitamin C are associated with improved immune health, and supplementation may help prevent and treat respiratory infections (
Besides vitamin C, strawberries are rich in potassium, folate, fiber, and key active antioxidants like polyphenols and flavonoids — all known for their disease-fighting properties.
In one review, flavonoid supplementation helped decrease upper respiratory infections (
Try a strawberry smoothie or frozen popsicles, especially if your child has a sore throat, since the texture and cold temperature may help them feel better. You can even make a strawberry yogurt frozen popsicle for extra support.
Evidence suggests that zinc supplementation may shorten the duration and severity of a common cold. While eggs don’t contain as much zinc as supplements do, they may still be able to support your child’s recovery in a small way (
The best part is that eggs are easy to prepare, versatile, and nutrient-dense.
A favorite for many kids, peanuts are rich in protein, zinc, and vitamin E — all key nutrients involved in muscle repair, immunity, and metabolic regulation.
One serving of peanut butter provides 10g of high-quality plant-based protein and about 10% of the recommended daily value of zinc. Plus, it’s a great source of the antioxidant vitamin E (
Baked or mashed potatoes
Baked or mashed potatoes are bland, soft, and easy to digest, and they’re higher in calories than most of the other options on this list, which is important for helping your child keep their energy up.
Focusing on the right foods can get kids feeling better faster — but it’s not always easy with kids, since they might not feel hungry when they’re sick.
The main priority is to keep them well-hydrated and aim for nutrient-dense foods they like to eat. Keep meals frequent and as appetizing as possible.
And don’t hesitate to reach out to a pediatrician or other healthcare professional when your child gets sick. While some foods may help them feel better, these recommendations aren’t replacements for medical attention.