Q & A: Nourishing a Sick Child


I received this question awhile back from a reader that I thought would be an excellent topic for this blog.

Here’s the question:

“I had a question about keeping small children hydrated and nourished when sick. My daughter (18 mos) just recently went through a stomach virus and was sick for a few days, unable to keep much down. Our pediatrician is very pro-Nourishing Traditions but was unable to recommend anything more than clear liquids, clear foods, and Pedialyte to replenish her loss of fluids and electrolytes. I tried looking around online for some information but I’m really not sure what’s good and what’s not. We ended up getting some Pedialyte and popsicles for her to suck on and, while she was able to keep them down and they helped, I know those weren’t the best solutions.

Do you have any suggestions or advice or experience for that? I’d love to know.”

Before I give my advice, do keep in mind, of course, that I am just one parent sharing my ideas, and not a doctor. I think that if your child is sick and getting dehydrated, the very most important thing is to get them hydrated again, with a qualified doctor’s advice and oversight.

While there are more nourishing choices, if your child refuses them, don’t feel guilty about giving the second best choice. Just do your best.

Having said that, I am excited to share with you some very nourishing, very hydrating options for you and your children. We are still in cold and flu season, so it’s good to know what some other options are.

Chicken Broth

The top suggestion I have for you is chicken broth. It’s been traditionally used to nourish ailing children and adults. The “Jewish penicillin” as chicken broth is called, not only builds the immune system, but it contains easily absorbable minerals. Add a good quality sea salt, like Celtic Sea Salt, and you add even more minerals. Sodium can be depleted if vomiting or diarrhea occur, so salt from natural salt can be important (avoid refined salt).

“Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easilyโ€”not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals.” Beautiful Broth

Of course, you will have to make your own chicken broth for these benefits. I make up large pots of chicken broth, and try to keep some in the freezer for emergencies, such as sudden illnesses. It’s so easy to make, as you just need chicken bones, (leftover bones or uncooked, bony, chicken parts, or a combination of both), carrots, celery, onions and a bit of vinegar to pull out the calcium.

Young Coconut Water (or juice)

Coconut water is really amazing. It naturally contains electrolytes, making it nature’s own hydrating drink. It’s a perfect drink for after a workout….or for when you are sick.

“Coconut water is a superfood filled with minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids, enzymes, and growth factors. It is low in fat and has only a fifth of the sugar found in most fresh fruit juices.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of coconut water is its chemical profile and mineral content. The primary minerals or electrolytes in coconut water are essentially the same as those found in human blood. For this reason, doctors have used it as an intravenous fluid for rehydration, pumping it directly into the patient’s bloodstream. Numerous studies dating back over 60 years document the successful use of intravenous coconut water in the treatment of malnutrition and dehydration.

Since coconut water has a pleasant taste, it has also found use as an effective oral rehydration beverage. Doctors have found it to be highly useful in fighting dehydrating diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and influenza, where it has saved the lives of thousands of children in underdeveloped parts of the world.”

Coconut Water for Health and Hydration

To clarify, this is not the water from a mature coconut (like what you usually see at the store, the brown shelled one). Rather these are young coconut, that are white, and much bigger looking then the mature ones. I can find them at my local health food store, and at local Asian stores (it’s much, much cheaper at my local Asian store, and it’s the same brand as the one my health food store carries). You can also get it packaged from a variety of sources, including the brand Zico. I do think it tastes much better fresh, and it’s easy enough to get the liquid out, but I realize that’s not a possibility for many.

Juice Kefir

While I think that chicken broth and coconut water are the top two choices I would recommend, another option (to replace the common soda pop given to sick children) is juice cultured with water kefir. This makes it fizzy, like soda, and provides beneficial bacteria as well. While some feel that even natural sugar should be completely avoided when sick, some children not used to some of the above choices will find this a more palatable choice.

This link gives recipes for many “sodas” as well as a juice kefir recipe. Here is some info on what juices you can use.

Some other Food ideas

Bananas: They are high in potassium, which is very important for a dehydrated child (it balances the needed sodium from a salted chicken broth). They are also easy to digest.

White Rice in Chicken Broth: A traditional Japanese dish to serve to the sick is white rice cooked in a lot of chicken broth until the rice is very, very soft, for a thick soup. Whole grains are important, but may be to rough on a sick child’s stomach, so this is a very gentle dish to serve.

Chicken Noodle Soup: A great way to get chicken broth down a sick child is making chicken noodle soup. While you can use regular durum flour pasta, when Elena had the worst cold she’s ever gotten, she actually loved the soaked pasta I made her (which I only managed to make because she was watching a little show). I was having a hard time getting her to eat anything, and she just loved it! Because it is soaked, it will be easier to digest, and it will be even more digestible when cooked in broth.

Bread and Milk: An English nursery dish to serve sick children is milk over toast. I actually really enjoy this dish, though it sounded funny at first. This is a good option for those with a good source for healthy milk.

So there are some ofย  my ideas. I think that it’s important to scout out sources for some of these items before the need arises, and also to serve them to your children before they are sick so that they are used to it.

Anyone else have any nourishing suggestions?

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. says

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and am really enjoying it. Thanks for taking the time to share what you’ve learned along the way. My husband got me Nourishing Traditions for Christmas and I’m just soaking it up.

  2. says

    Last year, our entire family came down with a nasty… something. We were all three of us, lying around on our futon, moaning. No energy to cook, but knowing that food would help us heal. I remembered that I had chicken stock in the freezer that I’d frozen in ice cube trays. Thick, nourishing bone broth. I dragged myself into the kitchen, melted the broth, added a pinch of salt, and made some tea. I am SO grateful that we had that broth on hand- we couldn’t stomach more than that, and we didn’t have the energy to cook more than that. Shortly after we had those first cups of broth, I got the idea (and the energy) to add some chopped veggies and noodles to it, and then it was soup! And we recovered well within a few days. I am NEVER without bone broth in the freezer now. Just in case.

  3. KimiHarris says


    Thanks! Nourishing Traditions is just so great. I have read it and reread it several times and every time I feel like I learn many new things. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Herb Wife Mama,

    Chicken broth is powerful stuff! And it’s soooo soothing when you are sick. I brought it to a friend once when she was recovering from surgery, and she also said it was the only thing she could handle. Thanks for sharing!

  4. says

    Herbwifemamma read my mind. I was JUST rereading Nourishing Tradition last night and was THRILLED to find your site. One of the sections I focused on last night was the importance of good, homemade stock and the nutritional value in it. I am a homeschooling mother of three boys and my middle child suffered horribly with some immune deficiencies a few years ago. Since transitioning my household into a Nourishing Traditions lifestyle, his illnesses are few and far between and even their behavior has changed. I’m looking forward to making a large pot of stock this weekend.

  5. KimiHarris says


    Thanks for sharing a bit of your story with us! How exciting that it helped your family’s health so much. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. says

    well, not sure if anyone else agrees with me, but seeing as my son is all grown up but I still remember it all like it was yesterday, the two best things and trust me, my son lived on this stuff for awhile there, is Pedialite and Jello water. Do you know what Jello water is? You mix up Jello with twice the amount of water. It’s drank for the proteins in it, it doesn’t make them get sick and they like it. It worked miracles all the time. If anything, it’s an awesome tasting koolaid ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Mel says

      Thank you for posting this. My mom made me jello water as a child and I had NO idea how to make it. It is one of the things that really stands out in memory as something that was palatable when I had an upset stomach. I just had NO idea how to make it. Appreciate the post! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Shirley Mom of 6 says

    Would Kombucha be a good choice? We’ve recently been enjoying brewing the tea for 7-10 days then adding fresh gingerroot to the finished tea. YUMMY and very soothing when sick! It tastes like ginger ale. All of my children with the exception of my autistic son are drinking the Ginger Kombucha, we call it our homemade ginger pop. We have had a head cold and stomach flu moving through the house lately. Our beverage choices have been kefir, Kombucha, and nourishing traditions style broth (chicken or beef). Hot lemon and/or peppermint tea have also been very soothing. If you don’t want actual tea you can take a fresh lemon, squeeze out the juice add hot water and honey and it is very soothing to a soar throat and stuffy head! You can buy fresh mint leaves or dried mint for “tea” without any “tea” in it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Karen says

    My granddaughter lives with us and recently had a bout with vomiting. I usually start with ice chips (1 tsp.) every 15-20 minutes until that stays down. During this illness I did some searches on the internet and found a source that indicated that apple cider vinegar was good for fighting stomach viruses…so I lightly sprinkled the ice chips with ACV …she held that down so I moved to adding some young coconut water to the ice chips…then we moved to young coconut kefir and then broth…it wasn’t long and she was eating me out of house and home. I don’t know if she had a true stomach virus or another issue but will update here again if we go through that experience again.

  9. says

    Hi Kimi, great post! I plan to link to it in an upcoming post about colds/flu. Also, tonight I’m putting up a post on stock, and want you to know I had it all written before I read yours tonight! (I pulled the same quote from Sally Fallon.)


  10. Mandy says

    During our recent stomach bug incident with five out of the six of us walking around carrying plastic trash cans, Kombucha was our saving grace. After a few hours, I started everyone on sips of Kombucha and moved to larger amounts. You have to start slow, or the vomiting may start up again. Kombucha is soothing, hydrating, and full of lots of good stuff! We make about 2 1/2 gallons at a time now. If you haven’t tried making it, do. It is quite easy, and very healthy. (No Mountain Dew in this house!!) The kids love it too. We call it our “Lovely Kombucha”.

  11. KimiHarris says

    Mandy and Shirley,

    I had forgotten about kombucha! I love it, and I do think that it would be very refreshing when sick. Great idea! The only thing to watch is that you don’t make a sick child detox (which kombucha can cause).

    Mary Anne,

    Sometimes you just have to do what it takes. ๐Ÿ™‚ But I think that there are definitely some nourishing choices that kids could like just as well. You can make homemade jello, from juice and gelatin, which is just delicious. (I have a recipe here on my site, for the curious.)

    Wow! I am surprised that she was okay about taking the apple cider vinegar. That stuff is strong (I should know since I have taken it at different times! LOL).
    Thanks for sharing your experience. So she liked the coconut water then? That’s great.

    Thanks, Kelly! I think that since we blog about a lot of the same topics, that sure to happen a lot. *smiles*

  12. says

    For ACV- I happen to think it’s grand mixed with cold water and a bit of raw honey. I usually do 1 T ACV to 1 t honey and 1 cup cold water (the cold is important to me). Straight ACV sets my teeth on edge but I think it’s a lot like a lemonade type drink and find it quite pleasant. My kids don’t love it like this but they’ll drink it with some encouragement ๐Ÿ˜€

    My 3 year old was sick recently and finally ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics and fluids. So sad and scary. Her first antibiotics ever ๐Ÿ˜ We all got sick and she just didn’t get better (strep). I am trying now to make sure we don’t get sick again which means lots of staying at home when we might rather go somewhere.

    Thanks for this great post! All of your posts actually ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. says

    Thank you so much for this!! Before the stomach virus, my toddler had never been sick in any way and now just yesterday she woke up with congestion and a bad cough. This post was written in the nick of time! ๐Ÿ™‚ I had forgotten about chicken broth…..I cook with homemade chicken broth at least twice a week, so I was happily reminded when I read your blog. I made chicken noodle soup last night for dinner and gave her some broth to drink in her cup this morning.

    I’m really anxious to try the coconut water/milk/sugar I see you talking about so often. I’ve been in one Asian market near my home, but it was a quick trip with not much more than a cursory glance at their products.

    Thanks for the reader tips, too! I’ve yet to work up the courage to make and try kombucha. The floaty-thingy at the bottom (i’m so precise) kind of weirds me out, but I’ve never actually tried it.

    The reason I didn’t like about the Pedialyte and Jell-O recommendations was the sugar and dyes in them. I thought there surely must be a better way to keep my daughter hydrated and nourished, while fighting the illness. Pedialyte and Jell-O worked great! But I’m glad to have a few other tricks available to me. And homemade fruit juice gelatin! That’s really wonderful! I might have to try that this week sometime.

    Again, thanks!

  14. KimiHarris says


    I was taking it with honey as well for a while, but it still seemed to bother me a bit. I have a sensitive stomach though! So sorry to hear about your three year old! How scary. :- ( While we still get colds while using it, some people report that when they consistently have coconut oil in their diets, they stop catching colds and flues. Something to think about! Here is my post about it. http://www.thenourishinggourmet.com/2008/09/coconut-oil-its-health-benefits-and-why-its-in-my-diet.html


    You are more than welcome. It’s such a great topic to discuss and share about. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Here is the link for the fruit juice gelatin, which we have always just loved. http://www.thenourishinggourmet.com/2008/08/fruit-juice-gelatin.html. No dyes, no artificial anything, and very refreshing as well. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just to warn you, while I have learned to LOVE kombucha, is tasted a bit like weak vinegar to me at first.

  15. Debbie says

    I have been so very sick and gotten very quick releif by taking kefir whey. When you are not able to hold anything down start with a half tsp, then if you keep that down progress to 1 tsp, wait 20 – 30 minutes and take another tsp. etc. Kefir whey is chock full of beneficail bacteria and I have felt like it has worked absolute miracles when I have been attacked with an intestinal bug. Of course it is not sweet and you may not be able to your little one to take it with out first mixing in some stevia etc. I also think it would be helpful for any type of food poisening also. It would be my first choice is I suspected salmoenella, etc. Like your blog….

  16. KimiHarris says

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for sharing! I think that my mother in law would agree with you there. I can’t have whey because of a milk intolerance, but I could see how it would be a great thing to take, with it’s beneficial bacteria and high nutrient content. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Sarah says

    An idea might be to make some coconut/honey yogurt popcicles. I know my doctor always recommended yogurt when our kids had stomach bugs to help regulate their systems again.

  18. Karen says

    Kimi…yes she thought I had sprinkled the ice chips with a little lemon. I later told her what I had actually used but didn’t want to chance that she wouldn’t try it because it sound icky. Mind you I sprinkled this very lightly…probably 3-4 drops initially and then once I new it was staying down I increased it slightly. Both of my grandchildren (one a cancer survivor of neuroblastoma) love young coconut water and the kefir made from it. They like the kefir plain, with a squeeze of lime or lemon or with a teaspoon of black currant juice. I have exposed their palates to everything they could probably be exposed to. They both eat sauerkraut and cultured veggies…sometimes not as willingly as others but most often they welcome them and ask for more….am I blessed or what???

  19. Rachel says

    I have a toddler with a vomiting bug and as I don’t have any organic chickens at the moment to make broth, I am making a beef one instead. Do you think this would be ok for him to sip on? Am making some of the fruit juice gelatin for him too, it sounds great! Thanks!

  20. Heather Tate says

    I took a class with Jennifer Adler at Bastyr University. She also brought up the Japanese tradition of serving the sick or elderly, rice in broth. But added turnips, carrots, onions, and parsnips when the rice was cooking. She put them in the food processer and pureed them. It was very tasty. All those root veggies add many vitamins and minerals that the sick need. She also mentioned that you could add in chicken if they needed the protein.

    If I feel I’m coming down with something and don’t have the energy or time to do the above. I warm up chicken broth add a clove of garlic, and if I have it, add one to two leaves of very finely chopped up leaves of kale. Then let it cook for just a minute.

  21. Kirstie says

    I would put breastmilk as the number one option – an 18 month old should still be breastfeeding (WHO recommends at least 2 years of breastfeeding for a babies physiological and emotional well being). Breastmilk contains all the nutrients the child needs plus antibodies and immunoglobins which would help fight the sickness.

  22. says

    Thank you SO much for this answer! Unfortunately, when you google “What to feed sick kids” and the like, you don’t get many “nourishing” hits. ๐Ÿ™‚
    To go along with the fruit-juice gelatin idea, you might add a pinch of salt to the recipe, too! This makes the gelatin pretty equivalent to WHO/Unicef Oral Rehydration Therapy. I guess if you’re drinking chicken broth, you’ll be getting some sodium anyway, but if all you have is the gelatin, the salt may be helpful for rehydrating.

  23. Helena says

    Thank you so much (all of you)!!
    It’s 3am and I’m pulling an all-nighter with my 2 1/2 year old daughter who’s been throwing up all day, and I’m starting to get worried. I’m so grateful that I’m still nursing her, despite all the comments from people thinking she’s too old, it’s all she’s wanted to eat all day, (and it’s also comforting her :). It’s her first stomach virus and I’ll be heading to the store as soon as they open in the morning to try some of your suggestions. I have organic vegetarian boullion that I use to make soup, would that be a good option too do you think? As strange as it may sounds, she’s actually been eating those cubes just like they are for the last week already so it might work. Thanks again.


  24. says

    I don’t have another one, but just had to comment when I saw the milk and toast…This is what our mother fed us when we had intestinal viruses and finally got to the point where we could actually eat something. The only difference was that she actually floated a chunk of butter on the warmed milk covering the toast. When we were very young, we had our own cow, so I think our milk was raw. But as we grew older, we had no cow, and the milk and toast dish just waned away…I can’t help but wonder now if that’s because in pasteurized state, it was no longer as effective(?) Anyway, I was too young to remember how well I reacted to it when we did have it, but I do remember it as being very comforting to eat as a ‘first meal’ upon intestinal virus recovery.

  25. Melissa says

    I used rice crackers/cakes dipped in coconut oil for my toddler when he was sick. He likes the crunchy and slightly salted rice cakes though I try to limit that. But mostly it was to get the coconut oil in him. I like coconut oil because it is easily absorbed and used by the body (see coconut & ketones). When sick often the recommended food is carb heavy, like BRAT. Just wanted to remind everyone that there are easy to digest oils. I have tried the coconut oil rice cakes myself after stomach flu and it worked for me.

  26. Sarrah says

    I am the mother of 4 and for the typical stomach illness we have always adhered to the B.R.A.T. diet; Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast in that order. When one is held for two hours you move on to the next. This is one of the only times we do more bland grain choices and no butter, salt, sauce or seasoning. It seems to reset the stomach in a way and has never failed us in 15 years of parenting, our kids always mend faster than friends using thera flu or what have you. Have not the found the miracle solution for the “real” flu; cough, headache, body aches, high fever etc. Anyone know the miracle cure for that??? as that is what we are battling right now.

  27. says

    We went on a hike recently and only brought water, big mistake! Since then I have developed a recipe for a healthy pedialyte/rehydration solution/sports drink that we will bring taking with us next time! It is a mixture of young coconut water, spring water (I get mine from a local spring), sea salt, and high quality apple juice! Coconut Water is so nutrient dense, it really is a great choice to include in your life! ๐Ÿ™‚


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