Produce for Kids is teaming up with Julie Harrington, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition chef in a monthly series focusing on the important role food plays in overall health, plus sharing kid-friendly recipes to add more fresh produce to your family’s diet.

Our diet and what we eat is more important than ever today. For most of us, we’re cooking more, exploring new ways of being active and seeking out new hobbies to pass the time at home. For others, there’s a need to save money and keep anxiety at bay.

First, know that in today’s unprecedented time, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Eating a healthy, balanced meal 100% of the time is not feasible for every family, and especially during a time like this, comfort foods are sometimes what we need to feel better. And that’s totally okay!

There’s no magic food that can keep illness at bay, but there are plenty that can help boost our immune systems and help fight off infection. We’re exploring a few budget-friendly options below, along with other important tips to keep ourselves and our immune systems healthy.

Which foods can help boost our immunity?

What we eat can play a role in minimizing inflammation and supporting a healthy immune system. It all starts with what you add to your grocery cart.

Fresh Produce

The produce department is usually the first destination when you walk into the grocery store. When heading to the produce department, think about what is in season.

When a fruit or veggie is in season, it’s abundant and, not surprisingly, it’s available at a more affordable price. For example, summer is berry season, so that’s why strawberries and other berries are so much more affordable during the summer months.

Keep these longer-lasting fruits and veggies in mind too for a well-stocked kitchen.

Go beyond just the produce department.

It’s a myth to only shop the perimeter of the store. Keep your cabinets and pantry well stocked with canned foods, assorted pasta, and grains, herbs, and spices, for basic cooking.

Canned food is nutritious!

To ensure that foods are packed at their peak of freshness, most canning facilities are located within a few miles of the point of harvest. Fruit and vegetable canneries often can be seen from the fields where produce is harvested.

Don’t forget about frozen produce too.

Frozen can be just as healthy as fresh thanks to American inventor Clarence Frank Birdseye II, who invented the process of flash freezing. Flash freezing of fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood preserve flavor, quality, and nutrients.

Birdseye discovered the key was freezing the food quickly, locking in foods nutritional value. Flash freezing forms small ice crystals which prevent the cell walls from bursting. Large ice crystals turn the food to mush.

What are some ways to incorporate these foods into your diet easily?

Onions

Onions are packed with immune-boosting nutrients like selenium, sulfur compounds, zinc, and vitamin C. Onions are available all year-round and make an affordable convenient option for developing flavors within recipes.

Close up of spinach leaves

Spinach

Spinach and other dark leafy greens contain high levels of vitamin C, which not only packs a powerful antioxidant punch, it helps fight off infection and regenerate other antioxidants in the body, including vitamin E.

They also contain folate, another immune booster. Spinach is versatile and can be used in raw salads, cooked within a dish, and even blended into smoothies.

Turmeric (with black pepper)

There is a great deal of research investigating the role of turmeric for health, especially the curcumin compound. Absorption is enhanced when consumed with black pepper (due to the pepperin compound), so remember to pair them together for optimal absorption. Add turmeric to rice, soups, or roasted vegetables.

Soup

Soup is full of healthy ingredients that can also help reduce inflammation while the salt content helps your body retain water and maintain hydration. The typical base of any soup is mirepoix (onions, carrots, and celery) and can turn into a variety of soup creations.

Looking for immune-boosting soup recipes? Try one from Julie’s The Healing Soup Cookbook.

Canned Tomatoes

Canned tomato products, ranging from whole peeled tomatoes to tomato paste, are not only convenient and economical, they all provide the health benefits of fresh tomatoes.

In fact, in some cases, they are more concentrated sources of the nutrients found in fresh tomatoes, such as the antioxidant lycopene. Use canned tomato products in soup, create a sauce to top on pasta, or even into hummus.

blueberries

Blueberries

Blueberries are a good source of Vitamin C. Vitamin C is necessary for the growth and development of tissues and promotes wound healing. Add to oatmeal, yogurt, or blend in a smoothie.

Citrus

Citrus is rich in ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, which has been used to boost immune systems for years. There is scientific evidence to back this up, including a study on vitamin C that confirmed it has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Yellow, red and green bell peppers

Peppers

Believe it or not, red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers are all the same type of pepper but just at different stages of ripeness. Green peppers are unripe, red are fully ripe, with yellow and orange in between the two.

As the peppers age and ripen their taste. Bell peppers can be baked, roasted, or eaten raw, and they’re also a great snack alone or when paired with a dip.

Beans

Beans are an excellent source of protein, which plays an important role in building cells, including those of your immune system. Roast chickpeas for a snack, add beans to soup, or simply pair with rice.

Naturally, colorful foods contain immune-boosting properties. Make it a challenge to get at least three colors on your plate for every meal.

Other important tips and resources for keeping your immune system healthy.

Get moving.

Those who exercise regularly have shown to have lower incidences of both acute illness (like an infection) and chronic illness (like diabetes). Exercise contributes to general good health and therefore to a healthier immune system.

Physical activity may contribute by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job more efficiently.

Looking to move more as a family? In the Making Exercise a Family Affair episode of the Healthy Family Project, Lesley Daniels discusses the importance of exercising as a family.

Lesley shares tips on everything from fitting in exercise in your family’s daily routine, how to fit exercise in no matter the season and how to enjoy exercise as a family.

Get enough sleep.

Research shows that people who are not getting quality sleep or simply enough sleep are more prone to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Certain cytokines increase production when fighting off an infection. Lack of sleep can cause a decrease in the production of these cells making it harder for your body to recover.

Prioritize better sleep hygiene by creating a relaxing nighttime routine. Turn off electronics at least a couple hours before bed.

Wash your hands.

May seem like a no brainer, but be more mindful of washing your hands throughout the day beyond after using the restroom or before preparing food. Wash hands every time after playing outside, using a tissue, running errands, etc. Your hands touch many surfaces throughout the day that can easily pick up germs.

Manage stress.

Long term stress can elevate cortisol levels, the steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response.

When cortisol levels are constantly elevated, it slows down the immune system to kick into gear to do its job to protect and fight against germs like viruses and bacteria.

Find a stress-reducing technique that works best for you. Try a meditation app like Headspace or Calm. Do a crossword puzzle or color. Find what works best for you.

Disclaimer: Before making any health or diet changes, please consult your doctor. The information shared as part of Food Rx is meant to be informative but not replace medical advice from your doctor.