How to Boost Children’s Immunity during cold and flu season
If you work in childcare, you know too well that infants and young children are often perceived as disease “super-spreaders”. This is not because they are “germy” or “unsanitary”; instead, it is related to their immune system or lack thereof.
Children under 7 years of age are at higher risk of developing colds, flu and infection as their immune system is immature and underdeveloped. The human immune system is a complicated network of cells that helps the body fight off infection and keeps us healthy. There are many factors that contribute to healthy immunity including stress, sleep, activity, disease, environment, vaccination, and hygiene. However, diet and food play a big role in supporting and maintaining good immune health. Let’s take a look.
What is the immune system?
Think of the body as a footy field – the immune system acts as the team defenders, working to attack and fight off pathogens, microbes and any harmful infections that enter the body. The immune system comprises of various types of white blood cells and antibodies which work with the lymphatic system and the spleen to destroy the invaders. The main tasks of the body’s immune system are to fight disease-causing germs, to recognise and neutralise harmful substances that we encounter in the environment and to fight disease-causing changes in the body (such as cancer cells).
How does the immune system work?
When the body recognizes the presence of harmful germs, the immune system reacts and triggers a whole bunch of processes that work to get rid of them. The immune system is special in that it has a “memory”, meaning that once the body has encountered a disease-causing germ for the first time, it usually stores information about the germ and how to fight it. If the body is then re-exposed to the germ, it can recognise it immediately and starts fighting it faster, meaning you are less likely to get sick from the same germ twice – think chickenpox for example, once you have it, it is rare that you will get it again.
What to eat to boost your Immune System
We are no stranger to the benefits of chicken soup, garlic, and lemon tea with honey during the cold and flu season – and for good reason! These foods do carry high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties which can give your immune system a boost; however, it is important to nourish your immune system all-year round to optimise good health.
Immune boosting nutrients and how to include them in your childcare menu!
Probiotics: yoghurt with live cultures, kefir, fermented vegetables (sauerkraut), Yakult drinks
Most of the immune system is located in the gut. Probiotics are a form of good bacteria that act as “shields” to protect the immune cells found in our gut walls. Yoghurt is packed full of probiotic bacteria and is a healthy and delicious food, often loved by children! Serve yoghurt on its own as a snack, add it to their breakfast cereal or mix it into a smoothie.
Vitamin C: citrus fruit, capsicum, strawberries, tomato and broccoli
Vitamin C is a powerhouse nutrient – it is an antioxidant which fights off free-radicals in the body and supports various functions during the early stages of the immune response. Children need their 2 fruit and 5 vegetables every day to meet their vitamin c quota. Enjoy fruits and vegetables raw or cooked – add fresh berries or kiwifruit to breakfasts or serve alongside yoghurt, snack on cherry tomatoes or make a colourful homemade juice!
Zinc: lean meat, fish, nuts/seeds, legumes
Zinc is involved in the formation of new immune cells in the body but is often not thought about. Animal products are rich in zinc such as beef, fish and seafood. Think classic spaghetti Bolognese (adding tomato for an extra boost), or everyone’s favourite, Taco Tuesday (with beef mince and kidney beans). If your centre is not nut free, include peanut butter in sandwiches or toast as a healthy breakfast or snack.
Vitamin D: eggs, offal meat, oily fish (salmon, mackerel) and fortified dairy foods
The sun is our main source of vitamin D, but it can also be found in some foods. Vitamin D helps the immune system by boosting the immune cells' production of defence proteins. Eggs are a great kid-friendly source of food vitamin D – think boiled eggs with soldiers and mini quiches. Omelettes and frittata’s make a great option and can be further boosted with immune rich vegetables such as onion and capsicum.
Need more help to create your childcare menu?
Did you know that it is recommended that childcare centres providing a menu service enlist feedback and support from Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs)? Dietitians, like us, have the training and skills required to assess your current menu in accordance with standards and guidelines. During a menu review, our Dietitians can provide recommendations for improvement and alternative options.
Dietitians can help design a menu that is based on the core 5 food groups, including
culturally sensitive foods (where applicable),
lots of variety (menus are usually developed over a 2–4-week cycle to avoid repetition),
exposure to different textures, colours and tastes (e.g. crunchy and soft), and
limitation of discretionary foods (e.g. juice, soft drinks and packaged treats).
This not only ensures that your menu is nutritious, but delicious, seasonal and appropriate for children. Afterall, healthy Kids are happy Kids!