Nutrition: How a balanced diet can help you when a child is in hospital

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Caring for an ill child is stressful. Learn some helpful tips about healthy eating on the go.

Key points

  • Eating a balanced diet will help give you stamina to deal with the stress of having a sick child in hospital.
  • Choose items from at least two of the four food groups for each of your snacks and meals.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep you hydrated. Keep caffeinated drinks to a minimum.
  • Do not be afraid to ask others for help, whether to get food, do household chores or look after your other children.

Being a parent of a sick child in hospital is incredibly stressful. The “fight or flight” cortisol rush runs high as you learn about and manage your child's condition while trying to maintain other responsibilities, whether to your family, your friends or your employer. Your child is your main concern at this time, but eating well will be an enormous help as you cope.

Make every bite count

Whether you bring meals and snacks from home or buy them at the hospital, choose a variety of food loaded with nutrients. You can do a lot to meet your nutritional needs by choosing items from most of the four food groups in Canada's Food Guide at each meal. You might think you need to include exotic “super foods”, but a balanced diet is more effective in the long run.

Vegetables and fruit

Carrot sticks or strips of pepper

Deli-salad (oil and vinegar based) such as broccoli, green beans, beets, coleslaw

Vegetable juice


Fruit juice/smoothie/cup

Tomato juice

Grain products

Wholegrain bread/buns/crackers



Cereal or granola

Deli salads (pasta, rice, orzo)

Granola bar

Mild and alternatives

Milk (plain)


Cheese pieces, slices or strings

Cottage cheese

Pudding cup

Meat and alternatives

Leftover meat, chicken, fish

Hard-boiled egg

Deli salad (chickpea, bean, lentil)

Peanut butter

Nut and seed trail mix


Mix it up with mixed-dish ideas

Choosing mixed dishes made from the various food groups is an excellent way to help meet your requirements. Here are some ideas that can be enjoyed any time of day.

  • Greek yogourt with fruit, sprinkled with granola
  • Porridge or cold cereal (and milk) with cut-up banana and sprinkle of nuts
  • Vegetable omelet or frittata and a wholegrain bun
  • Sandwich with leftover meat, fish (tuna or salmon), chicken, egg or cheese on wholegrain bread with lettuce and tomato
  • Hummus with pita and mixed vegetables
  • Mixed salad sprinkled with cheese, nuts and/or a chopped hardboiled egg
  • Orzo, rice or pasta salad with cheese and chopped vegetables
  • Smoked salmon and brie cheese with whole wheat baguette
  • Meat- or bean-based chili with toast
  • Bean, vegetable or egg drop soup with wholegrain bagel
  • Stir-fried vegetables with meat, chicken or tofu, and rice
  • Pizza slice with vegetables and cheese
  • Pasta with meatballs or meat sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese
  • Macaroni and cheese with a side salad

Energy-boosting meals

People often ask what foods provide the most energy. In fact, a regular eating pattern consisting of three meals and two or three snacks each day (or five or six “mini-meals”) is more energy-boosting than any one food. Making choices from two or three food groups each time you eat will help give you the nutrients you need. All food groups are important, but make sure you choose protein-containing foods from the milk and alternatives and meat and alternatives groups.

Energy-boosting fluids

Make sure you are drinking enough throughout the day to help maintain your energy. The hospital environment is very dry; sipping on water throughout the day will help to prevent dehydration.

Remember that caffeine is a stimulant for some people. While it offers a short-term energy boost, some of its side effects can affect sleep patterns and even result in heart palpitations. Caffeine is not only found in coffee and tea but also in various soft drinks and energy drinks. Try not to overdo it.

Be clear about the cues

Parents admit they get very little sleep while staying in the hospital with their sick child. You are in a different setting, there are monitor beeps sounding, overhead announcements and instinctive concerns to check on your child. When you are sleep deprived, it is common to confuse your internal cues of hunger, fullness, thirst and fatigue.

Accept support

Many people do not like to ask others for help. If you have family, friends, neighbours and hospital supports offering to help you, wholeheartedly accept with a “yes, thank you.” There is only one of you, so accept those helping hands graciously when they are offered.

Specific food ideas

  • Give your supports the list of nutrient-rich ideas above so they can bring you foods that will meet your nutritional needs.
  • Kindly ask them to stick to the list and avoid pillow sacks of nutrient-poor junk food.

Visitor time with your child? Time for your break.

  • Your child has a designated nurse and related resources to help them through their stay. They are in good hands. Recharge your battery by taking breaks. Have a walk. Take a nap. Find a quiet place to decompress.
  • When visitors arrive, they are there to support you, not the other way around. Take a break and do not feel like you need to entertain them.

Home duties

  • Get help while your child is in hospital with tasks such as car pooling your other children to lessons or school, making family dinners, doing laundry, watering plants, tidying and cleaning, mail collection and more. Once the dust settles from the admission there will be less to manage on the home front.

Parents spend so much time looking after everybody else and often put themselves last. Finding yourself in hospital when your child is admitted is incredibly stressful. Try to incorporate some of these strategies to help you cope with your child’s illness.

Last updated: April 4th 2012