Animals continuously weigh hunger and thirst against competing needs, such as social contact and mating, according to state and opportunity. Yet neuronal mechanisms of sensing and ranking nutritional needs remain poorly understood. Here, combining calcium imaging in freely behaving mice, optogenetics, and chemogenetics, we show that two neuronal populations of the lateral hypothalamus (LH) guide increasingly hungry animals through behavioral choices between nutritional and social rewards. While increased food consumption was marked by increasing inhibition of a leptin receptor-expressing (LepRLH) subpopulation at a fast timescale, LepRLH neurons limited feeding or drinking and promoted social interaction despite hunger or thirst. Conversely, neurotensin expressing LH neurons preferentially encoded water despite hunger pressure and promoted water seeking, while relegating social needs. Thus, hunger and thirst gate both LH populations in a complementary manner to enable the flexible fulfillment of multiple essential needs.