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Feeding Sick Family Members

by Sarah Curran, MHS, RD

While the saying, “feed a cold and starve a fever”, has been around since the 16th century, it is not supported by scientific evidence. With so many myths circulating, it can be hard to know how to best feed sick family members. No matter the type of illness, however, the foods and fluids you fix for your loved ones can largely affect the symptoms that they feel and the speed with which they recover.

How important are fluids and on which ones should I focus?

  • Because fluid needs often go up during illness, especially with fever, good hydration is critical.
  • Rehydrate every 1 to 2 hours with fruit infused water, bone broth, herbal tea or decaf coffee.
  • Don’t forget you can get fluids from foods too; add water rich fruits and vegetables such as oranges, grapes, cucumbers, and tomatoes to the plate.

Are there specific foods or nutrients I should feed my sick family member?

  • Serve small frequent meals that are nutrient dense when appetite is poor and steer clear of overly rich, greasy, and fried foods that can further upset the stomach.
  • Protein needs rise during illness; amino acids are the building blocks of the immune system; try adding peanut butter or cottage cheese to oatmeal for an added boost at breakfast.
  • Current evidence does not show that vitamin C supplementation is effective in treating cold or flu symptoms; however, vitamin C rich foods such as berries, kiwi, bell pepper and spinach can support a healthy immune system in the long run.
  • Choose probiotic rich yogurt over pudding or jello as a soft food to feed a sick family member as it will help to restore beneficial gut bacteria and support overall immune health.
  • While more research is needed, zinc has been linked to reduced duration and severity of cold symptoms; “metallic-tasting” zinc lozenges may not be well received by a sick loved one, but you can offer zinc rich foods such as poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, and whole grains.

What about a comforting bowl of mom’s chicken noodle soup?

  • In addition to hydration, chicken noodle soup provides a good balance of electrolytes like sodium and potassium, as well as protein in chicken, and antioxidants in vegetables.
  • Chicken noodle soup is also easy to swallow and doesn’t require a lot of energy to eat.
  • Enrich your broth with garlic and ginger for additional flavor; while their medicinal properties have not been proven in the scientific literature, they have been used for their anti-microbial and anti-nausea properties throughout history.

The food that you choose to serve your sick family members can help soothe their symptoms and get them back to good health.  It’s also important to remember that practicing basic food safety principles, such as cooking meat to its safe internal temperature, and maintaining good hygiene, such as handwashing, is essential to caring for a loved one when they are ill.