With body aches, headaches, chills and nausea, coming down with the flu can make you lose all appetite for food. This is especially worrisome for moms and dads, who wonder how to get their sick kids to eat even the tiniest bite of chicken noodle soup.
First, know that this is not uncommon. “Expect a poor appetite for the duration of flu symptoms, and don’t force food if they don’t feel like it,” said Mandy Layman, RD, a registered dietitian at Nemours Children’s Health System in Orlando, Fla.
Sips not bites
Liquids are another matter, however. “ Do push fluids,” Ms. Layman told Medical Daily. “Encourage sips of water or Pedialyte throughout the day.” She also recommended foods that are “naturally hydrating like soft fruits and vegetables, which also provide vitamins and minerals.” Ms. Layman shared that when she’s sick, she craves homemade chicken noodle soup, adding that any broth-based soup is an excellent idea.
“All I can think about is how exhausted it makes me when they’re sick,” pediatric registered dietician Kacie Barnes said in an interview with Medical Daily. “I think the worst is when you are sick at the same time as them, and you’re trying so hard to take care of them but barely have the energy to get yourself up and moving.” Ms. Barnes is also the founder of Mama Knows Nutrition .
The mother of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, she has a clever parenting hack for keeping kids hydrated. “I even set a timer on my phone for every 20 minutes to offer them a sip of water. It’s easiest to keep them hydrated when you stay on top of it like that.” If her at-home patients turn down water, she offers juice with ice, and fruit as a snack. “They typically like applesauce, pears or canned peaches — packed in juice, not syrup — when sick.”
Dinner is served?
If your picky patient will eat, both dieticians had some excellent suggestions.
“Meals can be hit or miss,” said Ms. Barnes. “I usually stick to bland foods since they tend to be more appealing, like toast, pasta, boiled potatoes, plain chicken and cooked carrots.” She offers snacks throughout the day and sometimes goes for a smoothie or a milkshake, if her kids are willing to sip on it. But she prefers to provide ice pops, which are soothing and hydrating. As for ice cream treats, she suggests limiting them to one serving.
Ms. Layman also warned about ice cream. “Foods and beverages with high sugar content, such as ice cream, fruit juices and regular sports drinks, should be limited if [your child is] having diarrhea, as it can make it worse,” she said. She also suggested steering away from caffeinated drinks, which can be dehydrating.
When to get worried
Parents should be on the lookout for signs of dehydration. Ms. Layman described symptoms like “a dry or sticky mouth, few or no tears when crying, eyes that look sunken, urinating less and/or dry, cool skin.”
Duration is also significant. “A few days of low appetite is very normal with flu,” said Ms. Barnes. “If it continues for about a week or longer, I’d consult with the pediatrician just to make sure everything is okay.”
The road to recovery
Even once everybody feels better, the work may not be over. “I often hear parents having difficulty getting their children back on track with their regular diet after being sick,” said Ms. Barnes. “When they have their normal energy back and are in their regular routine, just go back to serving meals and snacks as you normally would,” she suggested. “You can tell them, ‘You had ice cream for lunch when you were feeling really sick. But now that you’re feeling better, you can eat other foods again, so lunch is a sandwich today. We will have ice cream again soon.’”
It isn’t unusual for kids, or even adults, to lose their appetite when they’re sick. Try to avoid sugary foods or caffeinated drinks, but do offer kids frequent snacks and really push hydration. Keeping an ill child hydrated is a big deal, so offer water, fruit juice, Pedialyte or even ice pops. If you’re worried, reach out to your pediatrician.
And take care of your own health. “It’s pretty impossible to stay away from their germs when they’re little because they sneeze in your face and wipe their snot all over you, like you’re just one giant tissue!” said Ms. Barnes.
“I remember one time my daughter was sick, and I had to do a presentation in front of a big group that day. I didn’t realize until I got home afterwards and changed that I had her snot smeared all over my shoulder. Who knows what everyone in the audience was thinking!”