Whether your kids are starting their new school year with virtual learning or they’re physically going back into a classroom, immunity is always a big concern for parents as cold and flu season looms ahead.
While there’s been attention given to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) this year, there isn’t much kids can do to protect themselves beyond guidelines already set by the CDC.
But kids still need certain nutrients and vitamins to help boost their immune system to help protect against all the other germs they’ll face, either in the classroom or at home.
We spoke with registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, about the best things for kids to eat and drink to help charge up those immune systems and avoid the typical coughs and sniffles of the school year.
The best foods for immunity-boosting in kids
Knowing the best foods that can help boost immunity can help you meal-plan for your child, whether that’s mealtime or an afterschool snack. Here are some important foods to cycle in, according to Zumpano.
Zinc, the immunity linchpin
One of the most important minerals that can help a kid’s immune system is zinc, Zumpano says. “It’s typically found in protein-based foods. So oysters, red meat and poultry are some of the best sources.”
Beans and nuts are also a good source for zinc, she says, though the animal-based foods will deliver more of the mineral.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the recommended daily intake of zinc for kids is:
- Birth to 6 months: 2 mg
- Infants 7–12 months: 3 mg
- Children 1–3 years: 3 mg
- Children 4–8 years: 5 mg
- Children 9–13 years: 8 mg
- Teens 14–18 years (boys): 11 mg
- Teens 14–18 years (girls): 9 mg
But be careful; the NIH also notes it’s possible to have too much zinc, which can result in nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. According to the NIH, the upper limits of daily zinc intake are:
- Birth to 6 months: 4 mg
- Infants 7–12 months: 5 mg
- Children 1–3 years: 7 mg
- Children 4–8 years: 12 mg
- Children 9–13 years: 23 mg
- Teens 14–18 years: 34 mg
Probiotics and prebiotics for a gut-check
It’s also important, Zumpano says, to give kids a good source of probiotics. “Our gut harnesses a tremendous amount of bacteria. Some are healthy and some are not and probiotics help create a better balance of that healthy versus unhealthy bacteria,” she says.
Not only do a lot of yogurts contain probiotics, Zumpano points out, but that’s a popular food with kids.
Fermented foods, she says, are also a good source, including, kefir, sauerkraut and pickles. Also, apple cider vinegar is a good way to work in probiotics into a diet.
Additionally, you should be sure to get your kids prebiotics. Prebiotics are plant fibers that stimulate the growth of good bacteria. Excellent sources of prebiotics are green bananas or plantains, Jicama root, yams and asparagus
Nuts and seeds, a power-packed snack
Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and ground flaxseeds all provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, which are shown to fight illness, Zumpano says.
Zumpano considers nuts and seeds as power foods for the multitude of nutrients they provide. Just to name a few, they source protein, fiber, “good” fats like mono- and polyunsaturated fats, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and vitamins E, B6, B12 and A.
Fruits and vegetables
This might sound pretty general, but these are always good standbys. Fruits and veggies provide various antioxidants which protect cells from damage and disease. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries and green vegetables such as broccoli and dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard and mustard greens.
“These power foods pack a punch when it comes to vitamins and nutrients like vitamins A, C, E, B2, B6, K, potassium, folate, magnesium, potassium and zinc,” says Zumpano.
And, of course, vitamin C is key to boosting immunity, Zumpano notes, and available in citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit. “Strawberries are great sources for vitamin C, too,” she says.
What about supplements?
“We really encourage food, not supplements,” Zumpano says. “Supplements aren’t regulated in the U.S. And because there’s no regulating body around these supplements, we’re not 100% sure a supplement is actually giving us what it claims.”
There are supplements that are verified by third-party vendors, and those are the ones Zumpano recommends using. “That means another party has come in and checked that vitamin to verify its quality,” she says.
There are times, though, when supplements make sense. “Maybe you’re dealing with a picky eater or you’re struggling with a kid’s diet to get them the nutrients they need,” Zumpano says. “In those cases, supplements can help.”
One good example is Vitamin D. While your kids can get Vitamin D by soaking up sunshine, that’s harder to do when using sunscreen, during the cooler months and during the school year.
“Although foods can provide Vitamin D, you can’t obtain enough through just your diet,” Zumpano explains, “so, in many cases, a supplement is suggested.”
Zumpano suggests getting your kids’ Vitamin D checked with a blood test and asking a healthcare provider to suggest the proper dosage of Vitamin D based on your results.
The amount of vitamin D you need each day depends on your age. Average daily recommended amounts for kids and adolescents are listed below in micrograms (mcg) and International Units (IU):
- Birth to 12 months: 10 mcg (400 IU)
- Children 1–12 years: 15 mcg (600 IU)
- Teens 13–19 years: 15 mcg (600 IU)
It’s not just food that can help your kids stay healthy throughout the school year. In fact, Zumpano says that good sleep habits are essential for kids.
“Good, restful sleep is crucial for kids,” she says. “Sleep is when our bodies rest, regenerate and heal. It’s an essential part of keeping our immune systems functioning as best they can.”
Exercise is also important because physical activity can help keep your body resilient and more likely to fight off infections. “Make sure your kids keep their bodies moving,” Zumpano says.
And one more way to help kids healthy is minimizing stress and anxiety, an admittedly tall task given the ongoing pandemic and the effects it has on kids. From concerns about getting sick to the stress of being separated from friends, it’s a tough time for kids and mindfulness can help.
“Deep breathing, meditation and communication can help pinpoint sources of anxiety and stress,” Zumpano says. “Talk to your kids about ways that you can work together to minimize any negative feelings they may be having during these uncertain times.”