Do you feel like your child is always sick once the school year starts? If you struggle with keeping your child healthy during the school season and wonder what you can do to make your kiddo less prone to repeat bouts of colds, strep throat, and ear infections, check out this super simple (yet highly effective) checklist that will boost your child’s immune system – naturally, and with very little effort.
Keeping our children healthy seem like an up hill struggle at times but it is possible & doesn’t have to cost a fortune… let’s start with the basics.
1. HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES
Or as my favorite saying goes, “You are what you eat.” A healthy diet is the basis for a strong immune system.
The simple truth is that what kids eat (or don’t eat) reflects directly into the way their bodies respond to germs. A diet that’s high in processed, poorly sourced, and nutritionally devoid foods not only doesn’t fuel a growing child’s body with much needed nutrition, it has the potential to increase inflammation in the body and depress the immune system. Food can work with us, or against us. It’s that simple.
Make no mistake, healthy meals cannot be substituted by a multivitamin gummy.
A multivitamin can help fill in nutritional gaps but is nowhere near the equivalent of a healthy diet. You’re going to have to tackle this step to enhance immunity the old-fashioned way by increasing the amount of healthy nutritious foods and cutting back on empty calories. See a list of examples below.
- sugar, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), artificial sweeteners
- artificial flavors (including MSG)
- synthetic dyes (all FD&C dyes)
- white flour products
- processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, lunch meats, etc.)
- Deep Fried foods
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- healthy fats – kids NEED healthy fats in their diet! (real butter, natural yoghurt, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds & unrefined coconut oil are just a few examples)
- healthier grains – swapping white pasta for wholegrain or white bread for whole-meal makes a significant difference to your child’s nutrition & fibre intake. Fibre is also the food for their good gut bacteria, responsible for keeping immune systems strong.
- eggs from healthy free-range birds
- Full fat dairy products without added flavours or sugars.
If your child is a picky eater, it’s good to know that every little bit helps. My first born son was probably the worst eater in the world, (as a young new mum I often wondered how I would just keep him alive) but with a little imagination and a touch of sneaky cooking, I learned, healthier food options for kids don’t have to be complicated at all. There are so many ways to sneak extra veggies into every meal and even simple substitutions of regular foods that your child likes, such as white bread with more nutritious varieties, such as whole-meal, can fuel the body with significantly more vitamins, minerals, and vital co-factors.
Sounds too ordinary and simple? Well, it is!
Not only do virtually all of our cells, tissues, and organs require water to keep functioning properly, water also helps remove toxins and pathogens from the body.
For every glass of sweetened cordial, fruit juice, fruit juice wannabes, or can of fizz replaced with plain ordinary water, you’re already helping boost your child’s immune system.
Bonus points! This tip for keeping your child healthy actually saves you money. You can’t beat the price of water compared with any type of a commercial drink.
A fruit juice “not from concentrate” is healthy in moderation. Or even better, juice your own fruit. Juicers can be a little effort but so so worth it for your child’s health. Our favourite juice this time of year is fresh apple and beetroot but I call it pink apple juice. The girls don’t realise there is beetroot in it but they absolutely love the bright pink colour. Start with 4 apples and 1/2 beetroot and slowly add in a little more beetroot over time.
Fruit smoothies made at home are a God send for fussy kids who don’t eat their fruit & Veggies. Once blended you still retain all the goodness and most importantly the fibre of the fruit.
A word on water purity: tap vs. bottled water…
YES, tap water is contaminated with pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and all kinds of questionable chemicals these days, but bottled water isn’t necessarily better, not only because of the same purity concerns but also due to added toxic exposure from the plastic the water has been stored in.
Water filter jugs are fantastic. Tap water can be filtered to various degrees of purity depending on which water filter is used. To my knowledge, Britax is one of the most popular water filtering systems on the market, but we use Phox water filter – I found them online after a little research. They are a more sustainable option as you refill the filters rather than replacing the plastic filter each time. They have 3 different formulas to choose from, depending on the water type in your area. We choose the alkaline filter and wouldn’t be without it now, the taste is fantastic. The only downside is that it does not reduce the fluoride content.
That said, even if you don’t use a water filter, my humble opinion is that tap water is still the better choice over a sugary drink (which may have been made with water of similar quality anyway).
If you can get your child into loose leaf herbal teas all the better as these are like a supercharged water, complete with minerals, vitamins and micronutrients too. My children love the AphrodiTea, LemonAid and Pink Lemonaid.
3. VITAMIN C
The third most important tool for keeping your child healthy year-round is considering your child’s vitamin C levels. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that’s vital for maintaining a robust immune system.
Ideally, the majority of vitamin C should be sourced from the foods in your child’s diet. However, if you feel like your child has been slacking with his fruit/vegetable intake, won’t take juices or smoothies and he gets sick a lot or comes down with the sniffles all the time, vitamin C supplements can be very helpful in keeping the immune defenses at the ready.
That said, it’s good to be aware of the following…
Ascorbic acid, the most common form of commercially sold vitamin C, is not the real vitamin C.
- Natural vitamin C is a complex compound of unique nutrients and phytochemicals (such as bioflavonoids, ascorbate salts, ascorbic acid, vitamin K, tyrosinase) that all work together in the body for maximum absorption.
- Ascorbic acid is only a fragment of the naturally occurring vitamin C complex. As an isolated nutrient, ascorbic acid lacks the natural co-factors that are needed to achieve complex biological activities of vitamin C in the body. The body relies on its own reserves to an extent, but if/when those are depleted, the nutrient can’t be fully utilized.
Imagine a bicycle and think of ascorbic acid as if it were the pedals. They’re part of the bike, sure, but how far will you get by isolating and using only the pedals??
I won’t be getting into the topic of synthetic vs. natural in this article but if interested have a read of my previous post Why supplements are no match for natural food where I discuss the topic in more detail. In a nutshell, the vast majority of ascorbic acid available on the market is derived from genetically modified corn. But All-natural sources of Vitamin C on the other hand, contain a source of bioflavonoids, which improve the therapeutic action and bio availability of the vitamin ensuring optimal absorption and utilisation.
Sources of Vitamin C
Contrary to popular belief, oranges are not the only source of Vitamin C or even fruit for that matter. Vitamin C can be found in vegetables such as potato, cauliflower, most green leafy veg; spinach, kale, broccoli, nettles and even brussels sprouts as well as the usual suspects.
Simply eating all the colours of the rainbow throughout the week will ensure adequate intake of vitamin C. Vitamin C also aids the the absorption of the mineral Iron, and Funnily enough most plant sources of Iron already contain some amount of Vitamin C too!
I mean seriously, you would think Mother Nature knew this all along wouldn’t you?!
4. ELDERBERRY SYRUP
Elderberry syrup doesn’t just taste delicious, it can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of seasonal respiratory infections.
Elderberries have been used to treat all kinds of ailments from head to toe for thousands of years across the globe, but as it turns out there is more to elderberry than simply being a folk remedy since there are many health benefits of elderberries supported by modern science, including reliable immune-boosting properties.
I make elderberry syrup regularly & Start to take once the flu season starts, and during the colder months. We managed to escape all illnesses over the 3 years of covid, and although I can’t prove it, I’d say Elderberry Syrup helped!
Commercial elderberry syrup can be pricey, but you can make your own elderberry syrup for much less. It’s super easy to make and one of the tastiest ways to try to ward off school-related sniffles.
Healthy gut bacteria are CRUCIAL for a well-functioning immune system.
You have a whole other world living in the gut, both good guys and not so good who are in a constant battle for power. The ratio of good vs. bad bacteria in the gut microbiome influences much more than just digestive health as the majority of the human immune system lies in the gastrointestinal tract.
To really level up your child’s gut health and decrease susceptibility to germs, you’ll need to prevent bad bacteria from outnumbering the good guys.
Here are simple ways to promote healthy gut flora in your child:
- Cut back on refined sugars & overly processed foods (which compromises the gut)
- Serve fermented/cultured foods or drinks often such as quality live yogurt or milk kefir, we use Glenilen farm. They are a family run business from Cork and their products are the some of the best on the Irish market for flavour, goodness and live cultures. The kids range is superb, and your little ones will have no problem moving over from the high sugar no goodness yoplait varieties.
- Sauerkraut & kimchi are also fantastic if you can find a way sneaking them into your child’s diet. Water kefir and kombucha make a great alternative for fizzy drinks and are bursting with probiotics
- Give a quality probiotic supplement
Probiotic supplements typically supply the body with billions of bacteria in each dose (it can be much less though despite of what the label says) and there is definitely a place for them, but fermented and cultured foods are generally far more effective as they are capable of providing trillions of beneficial bacteria in just one serving.
Yes, garlic IS pungent! And a lot of kids don’t like to eat ANY form of garlic. But not only is garlic great for keeping the vampires away, it has antiviral, antibiotic, and antifungal properties to boot!
Garlic is an incredibly powerful immune booster, and it’s cheap to implement.
Ideally, garlic should be eaten RAW to reap all the benefits, but gently COOKED is better than none. If your child refuses to eat anything touched by garlic (it’s OK – a lot do!), you can always try to sneak some into your kid’s meals without altering the taste too much. Experiment by adding just a bit of crushed garlic into your bolognese or whatever the dish is and add more as time goes on (if you can get away with it).
Overly Cooked garlic isn’t as beneficial as raw because heat destroys much of the enzyme allowing for the formation of allicin (the key phytonutrient in garlic), but gently cooked garlic will still offer some levels of immune boosting properties to your child and is definitely better than none.
My kids love homemade garlic bread, it’s surprisingly easy to make and you don’t need to overcook the garlic. Here is a simple recipe, You can use wholegrain bread rolls or sourdough ciabatta. Preboiled baby potatoes gently fried with crushed garlic is another tasty way to get the extra garlic in.
To maximize the health benefits of garlic: Garlic should be chopped or crushed about 10 minutes before cooking to maximize allicin formation. Try to add garlic to the dish towards the end of cooking to minimize the effects of high heat.
You can use a variety of spices to boost your child’s immune system. For example, cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric are loaded with immune-boosting properties that can help keep your child healthy all year round.
A dash of cinnamon in a bowl of hot porridge or weetabix, a ginger tea with lemon and honey (a great remedy for a runny nose and sore throat), turmeric in a meal, are just some of the examples of how you can incorporate healthy spices into your child’s diet. Spices can be added to smoothies as well.
8. RAW HONEY
RAW. Not just any honey.
Raw honey can supercharge your child’s immune system. Raw honey has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties and contains varying concentrations of polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants. Just don’t heat raw honey which ultimately kills all the goodness.
Raw honey is basically honey in its most natural state. Raw honey is strained to remove impurities but not over-filtered like most commercial honey varieties so that natural components of honey are still present, and it doesn’t undergo pasteurisation (heating over high temperatures) which rids the honey of valuable enzymes and antioxidants.
As a general rule, the darker the honey, the higher the phenolic and flavonoid content and antioxidant capacity (and the more intense flavor as well – which not everybody appreciates). Different types of honey taste differently, so your child may have a preference for one kind over another.
NOTE: You should never give honey to a child under 1 year of age as it can cause botulism which may be fatal for infants.
A simple thing like adequate sleep is just as important in keeping your child healthy as all the immune boosters discussed so far.
Sleep deprivation impairs the immune system.
Lack of sleep can increase inflammation in the body and may negatively affect the good bacteria in the gut that we had talked about earlier, making your child more susceptible to infections. To lower the chances of your child catching circulating viruses, make sure they get enough sleep.
The ideal amount of sleep for kids is as follows:
- Age 3-5 years: 10-13 hours of sleep (including naps)
- Age 6-12 years: 9-12 hours of sleep
- Age 13-18 years: 8-10 hours of sleep
On that note – I’d also think twice about using a night light in your child’s room because artificial light can disrupt the sleep pattern by suppressing the body’s production of melatonin. LED and CFL bulbs which are popular nowadays are especially problematic as they emit blue light and affect melatonin more than any other light.
When your child’s skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces vitamin D3, a key player in a healthy immune system.
It doesn’t take much time in the sun to produce adequate vitamin D levels – just 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure (without sunscreen) every few days in the morning or later in the afternoon when the UV index is lower should provide sufficient vitamin D synthesis in a child with light skin. A child with a darker skin tone may need a bit more time to absorb enough sunlight to produce the same amount of vitamin D. The more skin is exposed, the more vitamin D is produced, so during the colder months the production of vitamin D is limited for those of us living in colder climates, but the body is also able to store enough of the vitamin from the summer/ early autumn months to last through the winter.
You can use vitamin D3 supplements if you feel like your child doesn’t get enough sunlight throughout the year.
Keep in mind: Vitamin D temporarily pauses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, so I personally wouldn’t give *any* supplement containing vitamin D (including any multivitamin) before or close to bedtime to avoid disrupting your child’s sleep.
Less screen time, more exercise! Physical activity (ideally outdoors in fresh air) is critical for well-functioning kids’ immune systems.
Movement increases blood flow which improves the circulation of immune cells. The better the cells circulate, the more efficient the immune system is at locating and targeting foreign pathogens.
12. EXPOSURE TO DIRT (AND MUD)
This tip is more useful for parents of young kids than older children.
Most kids are naturally drawn to muddy piles and mounds of dirt. Could it be that they know something we don’t?
Turns out, playing with dirt and mud can have health benefits!
Scientists believe that exposure to dirt is beneficial in at least two ways. Research suggests that soil microbes can stimulate the immune system and help reduce inflammation, as well as reduce one’s vulnerability to depression [source, source].
Say YES to the mess and a healthy school year!
13. CHILDHOOD STRESS
Kids can get stressed out, too. School is a very competitive environment not only because of exams but also due to peer pressure. Kids are trying hard to make friends, impress their peers, score that goal, or just impress you in other ways. Then there is bullying. And puberty, another toll on a child’s mental health.
Stress is a major contributor to unbalanced gut flora which can compromise a child’s immune system. My advice?
Easier said than done but I find simply ensuring their main needs are met, nutrition, sleep, exercise etc and after that, talking to my kids regularly, especially at bed time helps them to open up and get things off their chest.
Final notes on how to keep kids healthy
Here is a recap of the many different ways you can boost your child’s health during the school season:
- healthy balanced diet
- less fruit juices, sweetened and sugary drinks – more water
- vitamin C (ideally from foods but supplements are OK)
- elderberry syrup
- probiotics (from foods, or supplements with good reputation)
- garlic (even a tiny bit helps)
- herbs, spices & herbal teas
- raw local honey
- enough sleep
- plenty of sun when available (15 mins no sunscreen)
- regular exercise
- dirt and mud = a health boost
- Talking to your kids and helping them overcome stress.
I’m passionate about giving kids the best foundation for good health, and these are some of the easiest ways you can achieve that. There are many supplements on the market for kids’ immune support, if in doubt, ask in your local health food shop. But, the great thing is that you can apply these tips & keep kids healthy even without spending lots of money on supplements.
If your child gets sick often, try to incorporate as many of these suggestions as possible to boost their immune health. The more you add into their daily routine, the bigger the difference you’re bound to see, but even changing just one or a couple of habits will have a positive impact on your child’s health.