What are the best immune boosting foods for kids? In the thick of cold and flu season, and during the surge of omicron, it can be hard to decipher symptoms of the common cold versus this crazy virus wreaking havoc on our world. The good news is that our immune systems are built to work, and they already know what to do. It is our job to provide energy and nutrition to maximize immune effectiveness.
While there is not one specific food or beverage that will immediately improve immunity, there are foods that can support overall immune health. Ultimately, we cannot force our immune system to go into overdrive. On the other hand, think of immune boosting foods for kids as energy so their immune systems can operate at their full potential.
Immune Boosting Foods for Kids: TL;DR
Here is the “too long, didn’t read” version of this Dietitian-mom’s recommendations for immune boosting foods for kids:
- Add fresh fruits and vegetables to lunch, dinner, and snacks
- Eat enough protein and calories
- Take a Vitamin D supplement
- Probiotic foods can be helpful
- Healthy fats are important for immune health
- Focus on food, not supplements
For more details, read each section to learn more about immune boosting foods for kids.
Fruits and Vegetables
Focus on providing fruits and vegetables to your kids at meals and snacks. Eating fresh produce ensures that your child is getting a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. Offering a colorful array of fruits and vegetables throughout the week helps ensure variety.
Important key vitamins are Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Vitamin C supports immune health by potentially reducing the severity and duration of cold symptoms. Vitamin A plays a role in developing and helping immune cells function to fight off those nasty winter time bugs. The good news is both vitamins are found in nearly every fruit and vegetable!
By eating fruits and veggies, your kid’s body will get other key supportive nutrients like Vitamin E, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B6, potassium, folate, and magnesium.
Protein and Calories
Protein provides the basic building blocks for cells called amino acids, which are essential for immune function. Also, protein foods also contain zinc, iron, and B vitamins that help immune function. Interestingly, seafood is usually a good course of dietary zinc which helps bolster the immune system even more. Animal sources of protein are lean meats, seafood, poultry, and eggs. Plant-based protein sources are tofu, lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds.
Additionally, the immune system needs energy to fight infection. If you can, make sure your child is eating enough at meals and snacks so that their body has the energy it needs to function well, keep them healthy, and fight off any bugs that come their way.
Most Americans, especially those of us living in northern latitudes, have low blood levels of Vitamin D. It is considered the sunshine vitamin, because our body can form active Vitamin D with the help of UVB rays, and a series of reactions in the body.
Vitamin D helps our immune system by promoting the function of immune cells. If a kiddo (or adult for that matter) is deficient in Vitamin D, they could be at a higher risk of infection.
Although there are foods that contain Vitamin D, food sources alone usually will not provide the amount our bodies need. In this case, a Vitamin D supplement is a good idea. Children need 400 IU Vitamin D per day (up to age 12) and adults need 600 IU per day (up to age 70). Depending on your blood levels, it is safe to supplement up to 4000 IU per day (the upper limit of Vitamin D).
Probiotics are considered the good bacteria that can help maintain a healthy digestive tract. They help with food digestion, can help fight bacteria, and help maintain a healthy microbiome.
You may have heard that probiotics can help regulate the immune system. However, most studies show that the data is inconclusive regarding immune health.
While probiotics can be helpful for the gut, and this can lead to an overall healthy immune system, there is still a lot to learn about the gut and immune system connection. Of course, we all want to try to improve our immune system, and a healthy gut is one way to keep your overall health in good shape.
However, probiotics are often marketed as supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA. My best advice, if you choose to focus on probiotics, is to consume foods that contain probiotics like yogurt with live active cultures, kefir, or fermented vegetables.
Healthy fats are known to be anti-inflammatory. Chronic inflammation can hinder the immune response over time, so consuming foods that are anti-inflammatory will promote a healthy immune system overall.
Foods that contain healthy fats, also known as omega-3’s, are:
- Nuts and seeds
- Seafood like wild salmon, albacore tuna, and mackerel
- Olive oil and canola oil
An easy way to add in some healthy fats is to add some nuts to snacks, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on a salad or veggies, or add a serving or two of fish to your weekly meals.
Focus on Food First
Focus on nutrient rich foods when you can. Ultimately, you can meet most of your kid’s needs through food, except for Vitamin D.
Most importantly, enjoy your meals with your family. There is no need to add stress to your mealtime agenda wondering if the food you are giving your family is good for their immune system.
There just simply isn’t one specific thing you can do or eat that will magically make your immune system stronger. Your immune system is robust and knows how to fight infections. Provide it with the proper energy and nutrients to do its job so that it doesn’t have to zap energy away from the rest of your body to maintain baseline.
Other Ways to Boost Immune Health
While food is key to supporting your kid’s immune system, there are some other things that help the immune system do its job.
It is important to rest and get enough sleep each night. Make sure you and your kids are getting adequate rest! Sleep requirements vary by age:
- Infants: 12-16 hours per day (with naps)
- Toddlers: 11-14 hours per day (with naps)
- Preschoolers: 10-13 hours per day (with naps)
- School age: 9-12 hours per day
- Teenagers: 8-10 hours per day
- Adults: At least 7 hours per day
Exercise is a great way to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that those who exercise regularly are less likely to become infected with a viral infection, if they do get infected they have less intense symptoms, and less mortality from infection. Regular exercise can be used as one of many tools to improve health and prevent infection. Additionally, exercise can be a great way to reduce stress.
Reduce stress and anxiety
There is no doubt that most people have heightened levels of stress with everything going on right now. However, professionals agree that chronic (long-term) stress can internally raise cortisol levels, which in turn, can reduce a person’s anti-inflammatory response. This means that over time, raised cortisol levels can weaken a person’s immune system.
Finding ways to reduce stress in ways that work for you and your family won’t just help you all feel a little less, well, stressed, it will help your immune systems work better.
Here are some ideas: keep your strong relationships, go for a walk, play or listen to music, exercise, sit in the sunshine, get some fresh air, read a book, pet an animal, call a friend, or simply try to smile more often.
To Sum it Up
While there is not one magical recommendation for immune boosting foods for kids, there are things we can do to improve our health and optimize our immune system. Most importantly, focus on foods first, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get enough protein and calories, consider where you can include healthy fats and foods that contain probiotics, and add a Vitamin D supplement. Add to that solid sleep, some exercise, and reduced stress and anxiety and you and your family will be on the way to having immune systems that will keep all those pesky bugs at bay.
Parenting during this pandemic is hard, and I am here cheering you on!
If you are looking for ideas about what to feed your kids when they don’t feel well, check out my article Food for Sick Toddlers.
If you need help finding the best immune boosting foods for kids in your family, please feel free to reach out to me, and I would be happy to come up with a game plan to keep you and your family healthy all year long.