With a flu shot, frequent hand-washing, and these dishes in regular rotation, those little bodies will be in top form.
Children need just over three ounces of wild Alaskan salmon to reach their daily target of Vitamin D. Plus, its omega-3 fatty acids oil dry winter skin from the inside, leaving it less susceptible to inflammation and germs, particularly in eczema-prone kids. Dry, cracked skin gives bacteria an easy way in. Fishy flavors don’t always sit well with the little ones, so try blending cooked salmon flakes into mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, or scrambled eggs. If these tactics don’t work, you can always whip up some fish sticks: Dip strips of salmon into beaten eggs, then whole-wheat flour and bread crumbs. Bake for eight minutes. Kids love anything they can dunk!
We’re used to thinking of calcium as the big benefit of milk, but vitamin D is an up-and-coming star, especially when it comes to immunity. A recent Harvard study found that children with inadequate vitamin D levels are twice as likely to suffer from upper respiratory infections. “These results are really remarkable,” says Dr. Hill. “We’ve never seen anything so effective when it comes to preventing colds.” The sun helps our bodies naturally produce vitamin D, but in the dark winter days, we don’t make as much as we need (and when it is sunny, we block vitamin D production by covering up with sunblock). Milk can help fill the gap: Just one cup provides a quarter of your child’s recommended daily allowance (600 IU) of D. Fortified cereals and orange juice are another option, or you can talk to your pediatrician about a supplement.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
This powerhouse pair is loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients that bolster immunity. Broccoli is also a super source of vitamin C and zinc. Getting your kid to eat the little trees sound like a nightmare? The good news is “kids don’t have to eat huge quantities to get the benefits,” says Lauren Graf, R.D., a nutritionist at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. “Even a few bites is great.” If dips (heck, even try ketchup) don’t work, steam veggies, puree them, and add to pasta and pizza sauces, soups, and rice.
Seventy percent of your immune system is actually found in your gut (the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and rectum). It’s filled with healthy bacteria called probiotics, which fight off germs that can make you sick. So not only do probiotic-packed foods like yogurt keep your child’s digestive system running smoothly, they can help protect him from non-gutty illnesses, too, like the common cold. But these healthy bacteria are sensitive, says Graf. When we eat too much sugar, for example, they die. If enough of them expire, our bodies have less defense against illness. Eating a low-sugar yogurt (look for one with less than 27 grams per 8 ounces) can help replenish your child’s supply. You can even turn it into dessert by making ice pops.
Ah, the real breakfast of champions! Oatmeal contains a type of carbohydrate called beta-glucan, which enhances the abilities of the body’s immune cells, so they can fight off invading cells more easily and quickly. Oatmeal is also loaded with prebiotics, which feed those good-for-you bacteria in the gut. Plain oatmeal, sweetened with fruit, is the most nutritious. But sometimes the best choice is whatever flavor your little one will eat. If you go for instant, look for oatmeal that is sweetened with evapora-ted cane juice instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
While vitamin C isn’t the cold cure-all that we once thought it might be (remember crunching those treacly orange tablets every morning when we were kids?), it can still improve your tot’s immune function. Researchers now believe that vitamin C probably works in tandem with other micronutrients to protect the immune system, says Graf. But that means taking a supplement isn’t nearly as helpful as eating foods rich in the vitamin. And although oranges are awesome, colorful bell peppers actually pack more of a punch when it comes to C. And their bright colors may increase their appeal: Studies actually show that kids are more likely to eat fruits and veggies if they’re presented in whimsical ways. Try making a flower out of pepper slices!
Okay, we don’t know many kids who go crazy for ’shrooms. But while they may not be one of your child’s favorite munchies, they pack such a big immunity-boosting punch that it’s worth it to try. Mushrooms stimulate the production and effectiveness of white blood cells, which target infections, says Graf. And they’re often cited as one of the top foods to eat regularly to prevent illness. “Mushrooms are incredible,” gushes Graf. “If you can get your kids to eat even one or two a day, that’s great.” You can grill portabella mushrooms and serve them like hamburgers with cheese and barbeque sauce — your kids may not even notice the switcheroo. Otherwise, load sautéed mushrooms onto pizza and into pasta, omelets, and scrambled eggs.
These babies contain loads of beta-carotene, an organic pigment that gives the veggie (and carrots, too) its orange color. Besides its tint, though, beta-carotene is a primary source of dietary vitamin A. And vitamin A is a powerful immune booster. Research has shown that it actually helps your body make more — and stronger — antibodies to combat harmful foreign invaders. So go ahead and add our sweet potato soufflé recipe to your holiday menu.