What to Feed a Sick Toddler: Best Foods to Try

Two bowls of chicken noodle soup on a cutting board on the counter for what to feed a sick toddler main header image.

As a parent, it’s only natural to worry about what to feed a sick toddler – even though a decreased appetite is a normal and common occurrence. 

As a dietitian and mom of two toddlers, I know what a challenge it is to get any toddler to eat on a daily basis – let alone when they’re sick. The good news? Most experts agree that it’s okay if your little one isn’t eating much when they’re feeling under the weather. 

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and offer our kids food in hopes they will eat it. Using evidence-based research with a touch of personal experience, this post explores some of the best options to feed a sick toddler. 

This post does contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I receive a small compensation if a purchase is made.

Prioritizing Fluids

First and foremost, it’s of the utmost importance to prioritize fluids with a sick toddler. Children are more susceptible to dehydration, especially with symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea. 

Even if that means encouraging small sips of water throughout the day. Milk may increase mucus production, but most research doesn’t support this. 

Follow these below tips to optimize fluid intake. 

Flavored Water or Juice

If you’re not having any luck getting your toddler to drink their water, incorporating some flavor might help with acceptance. Adding juice or even an electrolyte drink like Gatorade are strategies to try to increase their fluid intake. 

Oral Rehydration Solutions

Oral rehydration solutions were developed 40 years ago by the World Health Organization as a gold standard to optimize fluid absorption. There must be a specific amount of glucose and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) in order to be classified as an oral rehydration solution.

They can be particularly helpful if you suspect dehydration, especially with acute diarrhea (1).  In replace of just plain water, Liquid IV and Pedialyte are both safe options for children 1+.

Popsicles

Popsicles are a real life-saver when trying to prioritize fluids for sick toddlers! Keep it simple with whatever you have on hand, or even make your own popsicles by blending immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables like blueberries, broccoli, spinach, and yogurt.

There are even Pedialyte popsicles to help them rehydrate even faster. 

Foods With High Water Content

Another way to optimize fluid consumption when a toddler is sick is to offer foods with a high water content. Fruits and vegetables, as well as broth-based soups, are great options to replace those fluid losses. 

what to feed a sick toddler

Easily Digestible Foods

You may have heard of the BRAT diet, which refers to bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. However, it’s not recently recommended due to a lack of scientific evidence – mostly because it’s very restrictive. 

If your little one is experiencing gastrointestinal upset, offering bland, easily digestible foods might still be a good option – but there are are many more options that just the BRAT diet!

Foods That Are Easier To Digest

These are foods which are soft in texture, low in fiber, and easier to digest. 

  • White rice, pasta, macaroni, or noodles
  • Breads, bagels, English Muffins, waffles, pancake, or rolls made with white flour
  • Sherbet and popsicles
  • All fruit juices without pulp
  • Avocado, peeled/skinless raw fruits, applesauce, canned fruits
  • Soups, with less tough, fibrous meats and well cooked vegetables
  • Cooked asparagus, peeled potatoes, carrots, squash, tomatoes, mushrooms
  • Ground or tender meats
  • Eggs
  • Sugar, in moderation, like jelly, syrup, honey, and small candies

Nutrient Rich Foods for Recovery

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant which has been shown to help with immune function. A recent study concluded that it might help with the treatment of respiratory infections

Foods high in vitamin C include strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and oranges.

Zinc

Zinc is another nutrient in which deficiency can lead to a decreased immune function.

Some foods high in zinc are meat, fish, seafood, eggs, lentils, oatmeal, whole grains, yogurt and mushrooms. 

Vitamin D

A lot of recent research has been focused on the relationship between vitamin D and fighting infections, with one stating supplementation could reduce the risk of Covid-19 and Influenza. Another study emphasizes the significance vitamin D levels have on our immune response.

Salmon, egg yolks, milk, and fortified cereals are some examples of foods with vitamin D that your toddler might eat. 

Homemade remedies and Recipe Ideas

Here are a few tips and tricks to try – from simple soup recipes to ways to maximize calories and protein intake. 

Honey

A single dose of honey (2.5 ml) at bedtime has been found to reduce coughing and discomfort, which might prove to be helpful as medications aren’t usually effective to relieve cold symptoms.

If you kid is anything like mine, they might not just accept honey by itself. Try this Teddy Bear Juice from allrecipes for increased acceptance.

Fortifying Favorite Foods

When it comes to actual acceptance, ask yourself – what do I know my toddler will eat? From there, think of where you can add in additional calories. This might increase the chance that they will actually eat it. 

Examples include:

– Replace water with milk, whipped cottage cheese, or yogurt whenever it makes sense.
– Add olive oil, butter or cheese to pastas, soups, mac and cheese, etc…
– Sneak in avocado if they enjoy sandwiches, quesadillas, or dips. Serve it on their favorite crackers or chips.

For more information, check out 16 high calorie foods and simple ways to increase calories

Hidden Veggie Macaroni and Cheese

This macaroni and cheese recipe takes a toddler staple and transforms it into a high calorie, high protein, hidden veggie meal. Both calorie and nutrient dense, a toddler with a decreased appetite could just take a couple bites of this mac and cheese for some nutrition.

You could also use this recipe as inspiration to hide nutrients into their favorite foods or beverages.

cottage cheese mac and cheese

Super Simple Dot Soup

This soup not only helps to replace fluid and sodium losses, but is a well-loved favorite by every toddler I know. It’s so easy, and something about the “dot” noodles makes it super fun for kids. 

Ingredients (3-4 servings): 

  •  1/3 cup of Acini De Pepe or Orzo noodles (any noodle can be used, but I find kids love the “dots”)
  • 2 Tbsp. Salted Butter
  • 4 Cups Water
  • 4 Tsp. Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base

Directions:

  • Add water to a pot on medium-high heat.
  • Once water is boiling, add butter, noodles, and bouillon. 
  • Cook noodles according to package directions, about 7-9 minutes.
  • Serve with grated parmesan cheese (optional).
  • Taste test – add more bouillon for more flavor, and more sodium if symptoms include diarrhea
    *Canned peas, carrots, chopped chicken can be added if your toddler will accept that. 

Italian Penicillin

This soup recipe (Modern Nonna) made the rounds on TikTok, being named “Italian Penicillin.” It involves cooking, then puréeing vegetables for some additional nutrients while still providing the comfort and simplicity of a noodle soup.

For creaminess and added protein, you could also add a 1/2 cup of whipped cottage cheese. Due to its’ subtle flavor, your toddler might not notice. 

Smoothies

Smoothies are a great option if your toddler doesn’t have the appetite for food, but they’re still drinking fluids. If they’re feeling up to it, getting them involved with the process can help with acceptance. 

Pick flavors they typically love, Greek yogurt for the protein, and their favorite fruits or vegetables. Another idea is this highly-rated turmeric smoothie, which has anti-oxidant benefits and immune-fighting properties. 

Key Takeaways on What to Feed a Sick Toddler

Poor appetite is a normal and common occurrence when kids are sick, and what to feed a sick toddler will just depend on their symptoms. The main priority should be to ensure adequate hydration. Offer popsicles, soup, electrolyte solutions and foods with high water content to prevent dehydration. 

Offer encouragement, but don’t pressure them into eating when they don’t feel like it. Instead, offer their favorite foods or present them in a fun, interesting way. You might need to get creative. 

I know how stressful having sick toddlers can be – hopefully this post will help you feel more confident in feeding your little ones when they’re sick.

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