There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you suddenly realize your household is in the middle of a sickness outbreak. Whether you all get taken down at once or one by one, it’s no easy task to keep everyone comfortable and on the road to recovery. As a mom, I know the temptation to simply toss a juice box and a bowl of crackers at your family when they are sick is real. But as a dietitian, I know the role good nutrition can play in getting everyone back on their feet.
So how do you balance the two? Keep reading to find out the best sick-day foods for you and your family.
The Best Sick Day Foods
The Benefits of Eating the Right Foods When Sick
Simply put, giving your body nutritious foods when you’re sick helps it fight off illness and gets you feeling better as soon as possible. While there are no magical foods that will supercharge your immune system, you can choose foods with the right nutrients to support your body’s natural sickness-fighting abilities.
Nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and protein provide your immune system with the fuel it needs to function and can be found in a variety of different foods. Additionally, staying hydrated is extremely important for both kids and adults.
Eating for Gastrointestinal Illness (Stomach Bugs)
Appetites tend to change with stomach bugs. Often, not much sounds good and sometimes there are not many foods that can be tolerated well. In this case, focus on fluids first. Progress to small amounts of bland foods before resuming a more regular, varied diet. Just a note, juice can make stomach bugs worse as it can make diarrhea worse.
Eating for Respiratory Illness (Cough/Colds)
Coughs, colds, and congestion can make it difficult to eat, especially in kids. Foods can also lose their appeal due to decreased ability to taste or smell. In the case of respiratory illness, continue to offer a normal diet as much as possible. Sometimes warm foods can help with symptoms associated with colds.
Foods to Avoid When Sick
There is no definitive list of foods you shouldn’t eat while sick, but it’s best to avoid anything that may make symptoms worse. For example, for a stomach bug, it’s best to keep foods more bland (at least at first) and to keep high-fat, high-sugar foods at bay. Typically, you and your family can continue to eat the same healthful, balanced meals you would eat if you were well. All that to say, many times appetites change during illness and some foods are more appealing than others.
However, there is no need to overly restrict foods according to the BRAT (banana, rice, applesauce, toast) diet. While it is no longer recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, this nutrition myth seems to be sticking around. This diet protocol is meant to help with stomach bugs and diarrhea, but there is no evidence to support its use. In fact, it lacks many of the nutrients needed for your body to heal and is made up of mostly carbohydrates, which may make diarrhea worse.
10 Sick Day Foods and Recipes
When it comes to the best sick-day meals and sick-day recipes, aim to serve colorful fruits and vegetables and protein foods as well as foods that help hydrate.
1. Chicken Noodle Soup (or other broth-based soup)
Chicken noodle soup is a sick day staple for a reason. It’s a good combination of protein as well as other nutrients from the veggies. Plus, its warming effect is comforting and can be soothing on sore throats.
Recipe: Cold-Fighting Chicken Noodle Soup
Smoothies are another sick-day essential. They are easy to make and can be adapted to fit whatever ingredients you have on hand. No extra grocery store trips! Add leafy greens for a boost of antioxidants, berries for vitamin C, and plain yogurt for probiotics.
Recipe: Berry Green Smoothie
Oatmeal is a quick and easy meal option when sick. It can be made with milk to up the protein content and can be topped with fruit for a burst of vitamins and minerals. Serve plain for the stomach flu.
Recipe: Homemade Oatmeal
4. Avocado Toast
Avocado toast is easy to make and easy to enjoy even when you are a little under the weather. The avocado provides healthy fats for energy and the toast is full of energy-producing B vitamins. Top with an egg for extra protein.
Recipe: Avocado Toast + Variations
Eggs are an amazing source of protein, quick to make, and oftentimes a fridge staple making them perfect for sick days. They can be prepared in a variety of ways which is a bonus!
Recipe: Microwave Cheese and Pepper Scramble
6. Energy Bites
Energy bites are easy to make and can often be made from pantry staples. Peanut butter provides protein while oats provide B vitamins and fiber. Their small size also makes them perfect for when your appetite is low.
Recipe: 5 Ingredient Peanut Butter Energy Bites
7. Plain Yogurt
While dairy foods may not appeal to everyone when they are sick, plain yogurt is a great choice. It contains protein to promote healing and probiotics, which help to support immune health. Choose plain or low-sugar, as sugar can make conditions like diarrhea worse.
Recipe: Quick Yogurt Parfait
8. Berries and Citrus Fruits
Some studies show that vitamin C can help to shorten the duration of illness. Can’t hurt to try, right? Snack on vitamin C-rich fruits such as berries and citrus fruits to help your immune system fight off sickness. Plus, fruits are water-rich and hydrating!
Recipe: Strawberry Orange Banana Smoothie
9. Simple Pasta Dishes
Pasta is generally a safe choice even on an uneasy stomach. While it’s perfectly fine to eat plain pasta with some butter or olive oil, you can also spruce it up a little bit. Try adding ingredients with protein to make it more filling.
Recipe: Cacio e Pepe
10. Roasted Vegetables
While vegetables may be the last thing you want to eat when you’re sick, roasted veggies get an easy sweetness about them. Plus, they are packed with important vitamins and minerals to support your immune system.
Recipe: Colorful Roasted Vegetables
Tips for Staying Hydrated
Dehydration is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to illness, especially with kids. On sick days, focus on fluids by offering water throughout the day as well as try to incorporate hydrating foods such as soup, fresh fruit, and smoothies. Fruit popsicles can also be hydrating and soothing for sore throats. For adults, limit caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea as well as alcohol to optimize hydration.
You may also try electrolyte drinks such as Pedialyte or sports drinks. If you get concerned about your hydration status or the hydration status of a child, contact a medical professional right away.
Nutrition is an important part of healing when sick, but nothing beats taking the time to rest and recover. Stay home from daycare, school, and other activities until you and your family are feeling better. It may be hard to miss out, but the less you rest, the longer you will probably be sick. So take the opportunity to read extra books, watch a fun movie, and get extra snuggles on the couch.
Prioritizing your family’s health on sick days pays off, so embrace it as much as you can. Choose nourishing and hydrating foods as much as possible to help support your body fighting off illness. Don’t be afraid to rest—everything will be there waiting for you once everyone is feeling better!