10 Tips to Toughen Your Little Superhero’s Immune System

Publish Date July 11, 2023 5 Minute Read
Author Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

While there’s no magic potion for immunity, there are plenty of foods, nutrients and habits that help support your child’s immune system! Along with an up-to-date vaccine schedule, these immunity helpers let them recover more quickly and fend off germ villains in the classroom and on the playground when heading back to school.

Check out our dietitians’ top 10 recommended foods and tips for back-to-school immune health:

1. The Power of C

Vitamin C is one of the most well-known immune-supporting nutrients. While oranges are a great source, there are many other fruits and vegetables valuable in Vitamin C.

Tip: For more Vitamin C super-power try these ideas:

- Breakfast: Make an omelet or egg bites with spinach, potatoes and/or bell peppers.

- Lunch: Pack cuties, kiwi, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower or bell pepper strips.

- Snack: Freeze mango puree in popsicle molds, or make a smoothie with frozen mango chunks for a cool after school treat.

2. Vitamins & Minerals: Immunity Superstars

Offer plenty of diverse foods (lean proteins, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives) to help your child reap the immune-supporting benefits of getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, many of which are immune system avengers.

Tip: Serve fruits and/or vegetables at each meal and snack. All forms of fruits and vegetables count – fresh, frozen, dried, canned and 100% juice. Serve fruit with breakfast, pack hummus and cucumber slices for lunch, and keep cut up fruits and veggies readily available for quick and easy snacking!

3. Protein for More Power

Protein helps our bodies build and repair; not getting an adequate amount may interfere with the body’s production of white blood cells, which are key immune guardians. Protein-rich foods are also often good sources of zinc – another important immune defender.

Tip: Serve a source of protein at every meal. Try these kid-friendly protein additions to breakfast or lunch: Peanut butter or other nut butters (Sunflower butter is a good option if allergies exclude other nut butters), baked beans, edamame, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, soymilk, nuts, tuna and lean meats.

4. Omega Power

Omega-3’s are heroic healthy fats found in nuts, seeds and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna and play a role in immune function.

Tips: Add ground flaxseeds, chia seeds or walnuts to baking, cereal or yogurt. Pack tuna salad with crackers or in a whole grain sandwich or pita pocket for lunch. Have the kids help you make a trail mix snack with nuts, dried fruit and a few fun chocolate candies thrown in. For a quick dinner, try salmon burgers.

5. Grow the Gut Universe

Much of our immune system resides in our gut. Help your kids grow a healthy microbiome (e.g. have enough “good bacteria”) by serving probiotic or fermented foods daily, including yogurt, fermented vegetables (kimchi, sauerkraut), kefir, kombucha, miso and tempeh.

Tip: Be sure to feed that good bacteria in their tummies with prebiotic foods, too: bananas, oats, onion, garlic, avocado, whole grains, asparagus, chicory and inulin.

6. Garlic for the Win

It’s not just for fending off vampires! Garlic has antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties to fend off immunity villains too. Luckily, garlic is a versatile seasoning that can be used in nearly every recipe without many kiddos noticing it’s there.

Tip: Sneak garlic in their favorites: pasta sauce, tacos, casseroles, burgers - you name it!

7. Get Enough Zzz’s

In the dark of night, the magic happens...during sleep, our bodies rest and recover from the day’s activities and our immune system fends off illness. Most students need more sleep than they’re getting. Without enough sleep, the immune system can slowly get worn down.

Tip: According to the CDC, preschool-aged children (3-5 years) need 10-13 hours of sleep per day, while school-aged kiddos (6-12 years) are recommended to sleep 9-12 hours each day. Teenagers (13-18 years) should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep daily.

8. Consider a Multivitamin

We typically don’t recommend supplements for children- “food first” is the motto- but in special circumstances a child may benefit from a multivitamin and/or Vitamin D supplement. If you have a picky eater and/or your child’s food intake doesn’t average out to meet the food group recommendations within a two-week span then this may apply.

Tip: Ask your pediatrician if a Vitamin D or multivitamin supplement would be recommended for your child.

9. Press Play

Exercise helps gut health, stress reduction and white blood cell circulation. Encourage kids to get outside daily for fresh air, creative play and to vent some energy.

Tip: Kids are recommended to get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical play daily. Bonus – they’ll soak up some extra Vitamin D if they’re outside.

10. Scrub-a-Dub-Dub

It may sound obvious, but the most important and effective way to prevent illness is – wash your hands frequently!

Tip: To make hand washing more fun and ensure a long enough scrub, encourage kids to sing the lyrics of their favorite song while washing.

Which of these steps is your little superhero already doing and which ones are you ready to work on? Try to set one realistic, immune-supporting goal today. Your immune system also works best with up-to-date vaccines - see what’s recommended for your family and schedule online. And to get answers to all of your questions about foods or supplements to support you and your family’s immune system or to get personalized support with other nutrition matters, book an appointment with a one of our registered dietitians.

Explore more healthy living advice from our team of experts.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Immune-Supporting Foods

As your kiddo is headed back to school, shop these great options to toughen up their immune system!