Nutrition Hacks to Keep Your Family’s Immune System Thriving

What your family eats is the cornerstone of keeping sick days at bay.

These days, health is at the front of everyone’s minds, whether we’re donning masks or washing our hands for the hundredth time of the day. However, supporting our immune systems is key and one important way to do that is to take inventory of what we eat.

Good nutrition is key to helping our bodies fight infection, says registered dietician and health educator Jessica McAllister of Dietician Approved Nutrition (www.jmcallisterrd.com). That includes COVID-19 and any number of other ailments we’ll face throughout our lifetime. Nutrients like zinc in chicken and fish, probiotics in yogurt, and vitamin E in nuts, greens and whole grains offer great immune system boosts, not to mention vitamin C found in some of our favorite fruits. Plus, eating a diet with plenty of fiber (fruits and vegetables), magnesium (greens, beans and nuts), and vitamin D (fatty fish) can help regulate our moods and better manage day-to-day stressors. 

Fortunately, eating healthy doesn’t have to be difficult. Even if you find yourself relying on fast-food too often, it’s possible to get you and your family back on track to eating more nutritious meals.

Bulk Up on Produce

If your family has fallen into unhealthy eating habits, it can be helpful to examine why, McCallister recommends. “Your body has cravings for many reasons,” she says. Making sure your family is eating three meals per day with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables will help curb cravings for sugary, salty or high-fat foods. Even if you still find yourself with an occasional sweet tooth, substituting something a little more nutritious, like a piece of fruit or even a bit of dark chocolate, can help.

Get Your Chef On!

Save your family a trip through the drive-through and better control what goes in their bodies by planning ahead for meals. Cut and clean vegetables as soon as you get them home so they can easily be added to recipes. Prepare a large batch of grains that can be served with meals throughout the week. If a recipe can easily be doubled, freeze part of the meal so you can grab it on a night when time is tight.  Aim for each meal to have a protein (meat, beans or tofu), a vegetable, a fruit, and a whole grain or starch to up the nutrition factor and keep everyone satiated. 

Forget Health Trends

In case you needed to hear this: You don’t have to go on a fad diet to be healthy. You don’t even have to like kale! Many of us make healthy eating too difficult, which means giving up before we start. Instead of aiming for the “perfect diet,” McAllister recommends starting where you are and making healthy substitutions where you can. For example, sub brown rice for white rice, and then expand to other grain options when opportunities arise.

You also don’t have to get hung up on only eating fresh produce. “Frozen is just as good as because it’s packaged at the peak of freshness,” she says. Canned can also be OK to use in a pinch. To cut down on sugar or salt intake, choose fruits that are canned in water or their own fruit juice, and rinse canned vegetables before cooking to eliminate some salt. 

Involve the Kids

For some parents, the idea of getting their kids to eat healthy can be quite intimidating. “It takes about 10 times for a child to be exposed to a food before they become familiar with it,” McCallister says. “The best thing to do when your child refuses to eat vegetables is stay calm.”

Allowing kids to help prepare meals and giving them autonomy over how much they eat by serving meals family-style can help reluctant children become more comfortable with healthier options. You can even let smaller children safely play with their food. “Usually they will grow accustomed to the taste and texture and will learn to like them,” she says.

Put Healthy Snacks Within Reach

There’s no denying it: Cooking with whole foods can be time-consuming — even when it comes to snacks. Taking time to prep your grocery haul as soon as you get home can help your family make healthy choices when hunger strikes. Package cut veggies, sliced cheese and bite-sized fruits —  like berries, grapes and apples slices — in small containers for little hands to grab, and keep a stash of single-serve yogurt, nuts, peanut butter and hummus handy for healthy protein options. 

Wholesome food is the foundation for a healthy immune system. Fortunately, with a focus on eating well, the other spokes in the wellness triad will come easier. “Putting the right nutrients in your body the majority of the time will help make exercise less stressful on the body and support healthy sleep habits,” McAllister says. By getting ahead of your family’s health now, perhaps there will be fewer sick days in your future. 

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