It starts around the middle of September and runs its course by April: Cold and flu season, with strep throat and ear infections mixed in for good measure. If your household seems to be hit hard every year, read on for some ways to prevent your little ones from being under the weather.

Eating defensively

The typical adult catches two or three colds a year. Most children suffer from many more. Fending off viruses and bacteria is made possible by a strong immune system, which can be positively impacted by a nourishing diet.

Research suggests a complex interaction between the nutrients from whole foods that help your child build strong defenses against infections and diseases. Not surprisingly, foods that promote immune function include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein foods and moderate amounts of good fats.

For example, omega-3 fatty acids—found in salmon, tuna and sardines—suppress inflammation, a condition linked to lowered immunity. And omega 6-fatty acids—found in corn, safflower, soybean and sunflower oils—appear to increase inflammation and inhibit the white blood cells linked to improved immunity.

Other immunity boosters you may not be aware of: Mushrooms (white button, shiitake, reishi, maitake), bell peppers, citrus fruits, celery, Brazil nuts, soybeans, garlic, oats, barley, wheat germ, buckwheat, shellfish and tea.

Managing calories and weight make a difference, too. Eating just enough calories—not too many, nor too few—and maintaining a normal weight is linked to a strong immune system. Needless to say, a diet rich in highly processed and"junk” foods doesn’t help.

Adequate hydration is another factor. Why? Drinking enough water helps keep the mucous membranes moist and intact to combat the germs they encounter.

Friendly bugs

Probiotics, or"friendly bacteria,” stimulate immunity cells in the digestive tract and help your child resist harmful bacteria there. Probiotics are found in cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. Look for the words"live and active cultures.”

Rest up

Inadequate R& R, as well as excess stress, contribute to a weakened immune system, which requires downtime for repairs and maintenance. Sleep deprivation results in the production of fewer natural-killer cells that destroy virus-infected cells. Make sleep and downtime a priority.

Mega doses not needed

We’ve long known that vitamins A, B6, C, E and folate, as well as copper, iron, selenium and zinc, boost immune function. Although it’s tempting to load up on mega doses from supplements, don’t. Single nutrients or mixtures in pill form may actually suppress the immune system. Simply obtain them from whole foods in a varied diet.

Physical activity

Encouraging your child to run and play regularly not only burns calories, it protects against the common cold and other infections. But frequent strenuous workouts, lasting 90 minutes or more, can actually suppress immunity. Being active between 30 and 60 minutes is about right.


Studies of children in daycare and school found that washing hands four or five times a day can cut the risk of getting a cold or other respiratory infection by up to 45 percent. Wash little hands for 20 seconds (long enough to sing"Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) with warm, soapy water as often as possible—and especially before eating. Packaged wipes or hand gel will help if soap and water are not available. Advise your child to sneeze into her sleeve, rather than sneezing into her hands. And have children keep hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth.

The basics of good health—eating well, enjoyable physical activity, drinking plenty of water, frequent hand washing and getting enough rest—will keep your family’s immune system strong. Let’s be positive role models to our young charges.

Tip: If your child does come down with a cough, soothe her throat and help her sleep at night with a teaspoon of honey, right before tooth brushing. According to research published in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, honey may work by coating and soothing an irritated throat. Honey is safe only for children age 12 months or older.

Dear Good Sense Eating: Does chicken soup play a role in treating colds or the flu? 

Lisa D., Homewood

Yes! University of Nebraska researchers discovered an amino acid, released during cooking chicken soup, that reduced congestion and inflammation by limiting the movement of white blood cells. The broth also helps to thin mucous. More good news—it didn’t matter whether the soup was homemade or from a can.

Smiling Tostadas

Corn or flour tortilla
Refried beans
Grated part-skim mozzarella cheese
Black or green olives
Cherry tomatoes
Kidney or black beans
Orange wedges
Salsa (optional)

Spread refried beans on tortilla. Use remaining ingredients to make a smiling face: cheese for hair, olives for eyes, a cherry tomato nose and bean smile. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Place orange wedges beside the burrito for ears. If desired, serve with salsa.

Reprinted with permission from How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, 3rd edition, by Connie Liakos Evers (24 Carrot Press, 2006).

Christine M. Palumbo is a registered dietitian in Naperville. She can be reached at (630) 369-8495 or
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