An edited version of this article, written by Lela, was first published in The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, available in stores nationwide.
Immune Boosting foods for children.
With Summer coming to a close and Autumn days drawing near, parents are getting ready for the annual cold and flu season. The good news is that with a little extra care and preparation it is possible to boost your children's immune system naturally, hopefully making cold and flu attacks less likely.
Children can often be 'fussy eaters' making it difficult for parents to ensure they get a balanced and varied diet. However, there are a few commonly available and easy-to-prepare foods which supply many of the nutrients which help the immune system to do its work. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the best:
Fruit and Vegetables.
In South Africa we are blessed with a wide variety of these powerhouses of health which are rich in antioxidants, nutrients which are crucial in the fight against free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules which have many adverse effects on the cells of the immune system such as damaging the cell membranes of fighter cells. 1
When buying fruit and vegetables, it is important to look for seasonal, locally grown and if possible, organic produce as these will provide the best levels of health enhancing nutrients.
Fruit and vegetables in season during the months of June, July and August include the following:
Fruits: Apples, Avocados, Dates, Grapefruit, Lemons, Limes, Melon, Naartjies, Oranges, Pawpaws or Papayas, Pears and Pineapples.
Vegetables: Asparagus, Beetroot, Broad beans, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Fennel, Jerusalem artichokes, Kale spinach, Parsnips, Pumpkin, Radishes, Turnips and Watercress.
For a full list of seasonal fruits and vegetables in South Africa go to: http://tastetourist.com/seasonal-fruit-and-vegetables/ .
Getting children to eat more fruit and vegetables is not always easy, however there are a few simple recipes which most children love. During the colder days, soups are a good option as many vegetables can be disguised in a thick broth and for children who eat only pasta and tomato sauce (yes, we all know one of those) one can blend extra carrots, spinach, cauliflower and even broccoli into a home-made tomato sauce, which most children won't object to. Butternut and beetroot also make good additions to such a sauce and have the added advantage of being slightly sweet, making the sauce more attractive to those who like the sweet taste of shop-bought tomato sauces. For children with more adventurous taste buds, garlic, a natural antibiotic, can be blended into soups and stews regularly and I've yet to meet the child who spotted the blended cauliflower in the cheese sauce with their baked macaroni and cheese.
When it comes to fruit, juicing fruits at home and then diluting the fresh juice with water can make nutritious drinks which help to give children a nutrient boost while keeping them hydrated. Ideally, to protect young teeth, dilute fruit juice as one part juice to three parts water as this helps to make the juice less acidic. Also try not to give younger children juice before a meal, as they find it particularly filling and may then not feel like eating.
Fresh, whole fruit can be chopped over cereal, served in pancakes or blended into plain, unsweetened yoghurt and served as a dessert or frozen as yoghurt lollies for occasional warm days.
A fun idea for a family day out is also to visit some of the local 'pick your own' farms, you can find a list on : http://www.pickyourown.org/southafrica.htm .
Yoghurt and Kefir.
Yoghurt is a source of probiotics, living microbes which improve the microbial balance in the intestine and thus have a positive effect on health. Probiotics are said to help to stimulate the immune system and they fight against harmful bacteria colonising the gut by producing substances that are toxic to these bacteria. They also prevent harmful bacteria from attaching themselves to the cells which line the inside of the gut.2 Probiotics are called the 'friendly bacteria' and when buying yoghurt, one should look in particular for natural, unsweetened versions which contain 'live' cultures. Yoghurt is usually well tolerated by even lactose sensitive children and is a good source of Vitamin B12 and Zinc. Folic acid is an immune boosting nutrient which is manufactured by intestinal bacteria so keeping colon flora healthy by eating yoghurt regularly could help the body to produce this important vitamin. Serve yoghurt in smoothies with fresh or frozen fruits or mix it with a little lemon juice and salt and use it as a healthy mayonnaise alternative in tuna salads and sandwich fillings or as a dip for baked potato or sweet potato chips.
The new kid on the block kefir is also a wonderful way to boost your family's probiotic intake. Kefir is a cultured food which contains almost 50 strains of beneficial bacteria. It is a good source of Calcium and protein and is usually well tolerated by lactose intolerant children, as most of the lactose is used up in the culturing process. Kefir can be made with milk or water, however, the milk variety contains more strains of beneficial bacteria and is an excellent food for children (especially babies on formula supplementation) and those needing a general system boost. Find out more about Kefir here: www.shoporganic.co.za/nutrifir. You can also give it to your pets with great results, take a look here: www.shoporganic.co.za/nutrifir-for-pets.
Conveniently, the humble boiled egg can supply good levels of Vitamins E, B5, B6, B12 and the minerals Zinc and Iron, all of which are at the top of the list when it comes to immune system support. Serve eggs boiled or scrambled, in sandwiches or even mixed with rice. They are also handy to pack for picnics or school lunches. Be careful to cook eggs thoroughly so as to avoid salmonella and be aware that children with eczema or asthma may be sensitive to eggs so try to introduce small amounts as a test before making eggs the focus of a meal. 3 When shopping for eggs, try to buy free-range and/or organic when possible.
Nuts and seeds.
Many nuts and seeds contain important nutrients which are helpful to immune support. Peanuts, for example, are rich in Vitamins B5 and B6, pumpkin seeds have high levels of the mineral Zinc while almonds are good sources of Iron and Copper and Brazil nuts contain good amounts of Selenium, another immune boosting mineral.
Unsweetened nut butters are the way to go if your children are very young and you are worried about the choking hazard with nuts and seeds, peanut butter on rice cakes make a healthy afternoon snack and many health shops now offer almond or cashew butters as alternatives. Another way to use nuts safely is to grind a selection of nuts into a fine powder which can be mixed into smoothies, sprinkled over cereal or porridge or used in home made fruit and nut bars.
Be aware that it is not advisable to give nuts to children younger than two years of age as introducing nuts into their diet too soon, could potentially lead to them developing a nut allergy.
Health Food Warehouse supplies all the nuts and seeds you may need this winter, find them here: www.shoporganic.co.za/hfw.
Many varieties of fish contain high levels of the good fats EPA and DHA, for example salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and haddock. Of these, sardines and salmon are probably the easiest to use when it comes to children. Making a sandwich spread with sardines or salmon and plain, smooth cottage cheese can be a good way of disguising the fish for those children with more sensitive tastebuds as the plain taste of the cheese nicely balances the strong taste of the fish. Fish liver is especially high in Vitamins A and D, which may explain the tradition of cod liver oil by the spoonful, which some of us grew up with! Cod has good levels of phosphorus, potassium and selenium and mackerel contains B vitamins, Vitamin E and Magnesium.
Fish cakes or fish fingers are an easy option which many mothers fall back on when a mealtime emergency strikes, unfortunately shop bought versions can be high in fat, especially when fried, so try to make home made fish cakes in bulk and freeze them to pop in the oven when a quick meal is needed. If you are lucky enough to live near a working harbour, investigate wholesale suppliers of fresh fish, buying in larger quantities and freezing at home can often save quite a bit on your monthly grocery bill.
A South African favourite.
I would wager that there aren't many South Africans who don't remember being given rooibos tea as children. Some of us loved it and drink it still, others moved on to stronger teas but the chances are, we are all giving it to our children. Rooibos and its 'sister' tea, honeybush, are high in antioxidants as well as being sources of potassium, magnesium, calcium, copper, zinc, manganese and iron. In addition these teas are caffeine free and low in tannin, making them the perfect teas to use for children. Use them mixed with fruit juice as iced tea or serve them as a warming after school drink in the upcoming colder months.
Some handy tips.
Regardless of how much variety you offer your children, some often still seem reluctant to eat, here are a few things which may help to ignite their interest:
Allow children to participate in preparing their own meals, cut sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters, make animal shapes out of pancakes and even omelettes and in this way help them to feel in control of what they are taking into their body.
Another way to coax a child into finishing a plate of food, is to retain some mystery and only give them a little at a time. This also prevents them from feeling overwhelmed by the sight of a full plate of food which they know they will be expected to finish. Encourage them to try the small amount first, then have them ask for 'more please', thus allowing them to discover the meal taste by taste and ensuring they eat a lot more than they realise!
Another immune booster.
Naturally, providing the right food is important for a strong immune system but it is not all parents can do for their children in this regard. Studies have shown that the numbers of natural killer cells in the body go up after moderate physical activity so ensuring your children get daily exercise, preferably in the fresh air, can go a long way to helping them stay happy and healthy! These natural killer cells are part of the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses so increasing their numbers will improve immune response.4 Most children enjoy group activities, thus it could be worth considering starting a regular practise of a team sport with some other families in your area, in this way, your children get exercise along with developing important social skills. If this is not possible, aim for doing an activity such as walking, cycling or swimming with your children at least five times a week, besides the physical benefits, this also gives you valuable bonding time.
A note on supplements.
Unfortunately, modern processing, storage and transport methods, mean that not all food is as nutritious as it may have been when we were growing up, leading to the need for supplementation. When contemplating a supplement programme for your children, remember that it is definitely not a case of 'one size fits all'. Although it can be tempting to give the entire family one multi-vitamin, it is important to invest some time in establishing each individuals needs. Children's nutritional needs differ greatly from one age group to the next and activity levels and environment also need to be considered. If at all possible, try to avoid supplementation for children, however if it does become necessary, be careful to use only products specially formulated for children's needs (such as the Oliela Shake, find it here: www.shoporganic.co.za/oliela) , preferably those recommended by your doctor, dietician or nutritionist.
However you choose to boost your children's immune system this Winter, remember that quality time spent together, love given unconditionally and regular doses of laughter can take your family far along the road of optimum health!
Special thanks to Meghan Warren, Children's Activity officer, Arabella Western Cape Hotel and Spa, for her valuable input in the writing of this article.
1 – Boost Your Child's Immune System The natural way, Anna Niec-Oszywa, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, Australia, 2001, pages 97-98. ISBN: 1 865085103.
2 - Boost Your Child's Immune System The natural way, Anna Niec-Oszywa, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, Australia, 2001, page 126. ISBN: 1 865085103.
3 – Rose Elliot's Mother, Baby & Toddler Book, Rose Elliot, Harper Collins Publishers, Ted Smart, London, 1996, page 64. ISBN: 0583 32565-3.
4 - Boost Your Child's Immune System The natural way, Anna Niec-Oszywa, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, Australia, 2001, page 192. ISBN: 1 865085103.
Other books and websites used in the writing of this article:
a) Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal, Reader's Digest, published by The Reader's Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Limited, Cape Town, 1997. ISBN: 1 874912521.
b) Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Elson M. Haas M.D, Celestial Arts
Publishing, 1992, Berkeley, California, ISBN: 0-89087-481-6