Nutritional Needs and Immune System for Children

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Nutritional Needs and Immune System for Children


Julie Harris, RDN, LDN, CPT

It’s one a.m. in the morning and you are up taking care of your sick child. Every parent has been there. And naturally, we want to do everything we can to help prevent our children from getting sick. Offering our children with nutrient-rich foods and supporting healthy food habits goes a long way in encouraging a healthy immune system.

Here are a few ways you can support a healthy immune system for your children.

Create the rainbow on their plate.

Fruits and vegetables are colorful because they contain different compounds, which also benefits our health as well. For example, lycopene is a type of carotenoid that handles the vivid pink-red color of watermelons, tomatoes, and papayas. Lycopene and other carotenoids are antioxidants that help manage inflammation in the body.

You may have also heard of carotenoids, as they make the yellow and orange pigments in peaches, mangoes, carrots, and pumpkins. Think of healthy eyes for your kids when they’re eating these colorful foods.

Colorful foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbohydrates — meaning, their immune system gets what it needs.

Serve foods that support a healthy gut. 

Current research suggests that our gut health influences our overall immune system. Certain cells of the gut help excrete antibodies and as our children’s gut is developing, we want to support it with foods that encourage good bacteria.

An imbalance of bacteria types affects our children’s immune health. Add in certain foods that help their digestive system operate. Here are some foods that positively support gut health:

  • Yogurt
  • Water
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Cheese
  • Fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut

It may take some time to develop your child’s taste buds for certain foods. That’s okay. Just continue to offer them a variety of foods.

Create a mealtime and snack schedule.

Meal planning helps ensure your children are eating a variety of foods. If you’ve planned most of the meals, you can see the variety and options you’re offering your child. It’s hard to remember what we had for dinner last night, so it’s a check and balance system.

Meal planning also helps your children know what time their next snack or meal is available. This helps reduce grazing all day and allows more structure in the kitchen.

Researchers have found that children who eat regular family meals eat more fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals, and eat fewer fast food items. Plus, young adults who ate regular family meals as teenagers are less likely to fall into the obese category. They’re also more likely to eat more balanced and structured meals once they are out living on their own.

Encourage intuitive eating and mindful eating habits.

Allowing our children to eat intuitively gives them a greater sense of control, which helps children try to enjoy a wider variety of foods.

Babies are born with intuition about their hunger. It’s our job as parents to protect and encourage those instincts. Set up boundaries, like meal schedules and what’s for dinner, and then allow kids to tap into their internal cues about how much to eat.

Let them be chefs in the kitchen.

As parents, it’s challenging to accept help from our little ones when doing it ourselves will go faster. But by including your child in kitchen tasks and the cooking process, you’re helping them develop a healthier relationship with food.

Let them play in the flour or roll out the dough. Even just letting them serve their own food helps them gain a better connection with food choices. Have fun with children in the kitchen.

Children who learn about their food, where it grows, and how it’s made, will get excited about the foods going in their body.

Follow their growth curve.

Every kid from birth starts on their own growth curve. How a child compares to other children is not as important as how they compare to their own growth.

Your child may start on the lower end of the growth curve and stay there for years. And that’s okay. Yet, if a child trends significantly off their growth curve, that’s when we want to look at what and how much they’re eating. Sudden changes in their growth can affect their immune health, bone health, and development.

Our children can’t avoid all illnesses, but some kids need extra protection. If your child has a compromised immune system, work with your health care providers to improve their immunity. Each child needs a personalized strategy because their individual situation varies but these basic tips will stand true for most kids.

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