Sweet potato fries. Photo iStock
Eating healthy is a must-do all year round, whether you’re fighting a common cold or one of the many viruses circulating this winter. Fill your shopping cart (virtual or otherwise) with immune-boosting foods that not only taste great, but could help you feel better and keep those viruses at bay. These superfoods are whole foods that are packed full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and other important nutrients that also happen to be perfect for dinner. Here are just a few of our favorite foods, and a few delicious recipes to start.
Oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes are high in vitamin C, which is helpful to both prevent colds and shorten their duration once you’ve caught one. And, since our bodies don’t store or produce this vitamin, it’s important to get a little bit from food sources every day. Bonus: Citrus is at its best in winter, when cold and flu viruses are at their worst. Coincidence? We think not. Whip up an easy orange “Dreamsicle” smoothie from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe for breakfast, or turn the same base into popsicles for dessert.
The live and active cultures found in Greek yogurt may stimulate our immune system, helping to fight disease. It’s also a great source of vitamin D, which regulates our immune system. Plus, the probiotics found in fermented foods, like yogurt, may lessen the severity of colds. Reach for plain yogurt to avoid added sugars. A quick and healthy snack, yogurt fruit dip from A Couple Cooks, can be made with five ingredients in as many minutes.
Much like yogurt, this fermented soy bean paste has a ton of probiotics. Not only do probiotics boost your immune system, but they can also help fight infectious (and non-infectious) diarrhea. Yikes! Introduce your kids to miso with miso alphabet soup from Super Healthy Kids. They’ll love the tiny alphabet pasta, and you’ll love the immune-boosting benefits.
Every parent knows that broccoli is good for you, and you’re right! This green veggie is packed with vitamins A, C and E, fiber and antioxidants such as glutathione. Plus, it’s easy to find at every grocery store. Turn tater tots on their heads with Yummy Toddler Foods’ easy homemade broccoli tots. A healthy tot alternative, made with brown rice, eggs, cheese and of course ... broccoli!
Sweet potatoes are packed with beta-carotene, which our bodies turn into vitamin A, an essential micronutrient that helps get rid of free radicals. This in turn helps to boost the immune system (and may even slow down the aging process for all of you weary parents out there). They are also packed with fiber, healthy minerals and vitamin C. Kids rarely turn up their noses at French fries, and Cookie and Kate’s crispy baked sweet potato fries are no exception. If you like, make them a bit sweeter with a pinch of cinnamon and brown sugar.
There’s a good chance you think citrus fruit is the best source of vitamin C, but ounce for ounce, bell peppers contain almost three times as much. Not only that, they are a great source of beta carotene, which helps our eyes and skin stay healthy. Turn something kids know and love (pizza) into something healthy to eat (bell pepper pizzas). The blogger at Peas and Crayons uses sweet bell peppers to make pizza crust, for an immune-boosting dinner.
We don’t often talk about vitamin E, but this fat-soluble vitamin is a great antioxidant to help build a healthy immune system. Almonds are a two-for-one. Not only do they have vitamin E, but they have plenty of heart-healthy fats that help deliver those infection-fighting benefits to your immune system. You can pack The Snack Society's almond and date bars in your school lunch box, day hike backpack, or just eat them for breakfast or a snack. These natural and unprocessed bars incorporate three forms of almonds (whole, butter and milk).
An easy snack for kids and adults to eat, kiwi is loaded with folate, potassium, vitamin K and vitamin C, helping to fight infections and keep our bodies working properly. All of these goodies may actually help reduce the likelihood of developing colds and flus, or reduce the severity if you already have one. When you’re looking for something a little bit more involved than a kiwi and spoon, check out portable easy citrus-kiwi fruit roll-ups from Cotter Crunch. This version is healthier and less expensive than the kind you grab off the supermarket shelf.
Lobster, crab, clams, oysters and mussels are high in zinc, an essential mineral that is used in the development and functioning of immune cells. Zinc also helps make healthy inflammation responses, can balance free radicals and can shorten cold symptoms. Mini crab cakes from Lemon Tree Dwelling are cute and tasty. If your kids don’t like cilantro, simply leave it out and try serving them with ketchup instead of aioli.
Popeye knows what he’s talking about. Spinach is a “superfood” that contains folate, something that helps our bodies repair DNA and make new cells. Plus, it has a ton of fiber, vitamin C and other antioxidants. To maximize this powerhouse, it’s best eaten raw, but a light cook will still pack plenty of immune-boosting punches. Sometimes we have to hide veggies in our food so kids will eat them, and brilliant disguiser Catherine behind the Weelicious blog has mastered this technique with her spinach pancakes recipe. They taste just like regular pancakes, but with a crazy color (and hidden immune-boosting benefits).
Looking to add a bit of extra flavor and immune support? Try adding a healthy pinch of one of these flavor and immune boosters to your next meal:
Garlic: Not only does it add flavor to almost any dish, but it may also help fight infections, bacteria, viruses and even fungi.
Ginger: Ginger can help decrease inflammation (think: sore throat) and quell nausea, plus it has a ton of antioxidants. Reach for the fresh stuff, as dried ginger is not as potent.
Turmeric: Like ginger, turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and adds a bright yellow hue to your dishes.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2020, and updated in December 2022.