For Parents
Beating the winter blahs

Beating the winter blahs


Feed your young athlete a steady diet of immune-boosting foods to help them fend off colds and keep them healthy and in the game all season long.

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CD-N

Welcome to winter and the cold and flu season! It’s that time of year when drippy noses and raspy coughs are heard in many households and gyms around the country.

While research tells us that the temperature outside has little to do with becoming ill, certain lifestyle choices such as going to bed too late, high levels of stress, and poor diet may make young athletes more prone to “catching” a cold.

Prevention is the name of the game if you want to help your young athletes avoid the winter blahs. Hand washing, covering mouths when sneezing or coughing, getting enough rest and eating well all help to ward off Old Man Winter’s illnesses.

In fact, many foods can be a child’s ally over the winter season, and throughout the year.

Research tells us that the food we eat may help our body stay strong and resistant to illness. Many nutrients in food help to boost the immune system, through activating, building, defending or strengthening it. Get a load of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, B vitamins, selenium, zinc, probiotics, flavenoids, certain amino acids and fiber—these nutrients will help youngsters be well on their way to a strong immune system which protects them from illness.

A great first step to adjusting a child’s diet is to adopt the wise advice of including a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. These foods are chock full of vitamins A and C, as well as fiber and other immune-related nutrients.  Whole grain options are important too, as these are packed with fiber and B vitamins, and associated with a stronger immune system. Stock these other foods in your pantry and refrigerator to increase your child’s likelihood of an illness-free winter:

Yogurt: Choose probiotic-containing versions, with a Vitamin D source. The “live and active cultures” seal on the product lets you know that the effective strains of probiotic are present. Check the label for Vitamin D – a deficiency of this nutrient is associated with increased risk of cold and flu.

Dark-colored berries: Anthocyanins are the important ingredient here, with the dark or bright color of the fruit being the sign of their presence. Anthocyanins are believed to strengthen the immune system and fight disease. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries make the cut. Throw a handful on your child’s yogurt or cereal and they’ll be off to a great start to the day!

Almonds: Vitamin E, found in food like almonds, acts as an antioxidant, slowing down the process of cell damage. Vitamin E is also known to boost the immune system. A handful of almonds are a great protein-, and vitamin E-rich snack to add to your child’s routine.

Cabbage: While this may not be a kid-friendly food, cabbage is loaded with the immune strengthener glutamine, an amino acid. Give it a try with stuffed cabbage, coleslaw, sauerkraut or sautée in a pan with olive oil and spices. You never know if your family will like it unless you try!

Oats or barley: These foods contain a special fiber called beta-glucan, which acts as an antioxidant and an antimicrobial (fights against harmful micro-organisms). Stir in oats with your cookie dough and add barley to soups, or just prepare them with milk or a non-dairy substitute for a fiber-rich breakfast or snack.

Garlic: The special ingredient in this food is allicin, which fights against infection and bacteria. Garlic adds flavor to just about anything! Find ways to add it to soups, sauces and meat dishes, sautée garlic with veggies, and include it in entrée dishes.

Fish: Selenium is the important agent here, acting as an aid to white blood cells (the primary fighting cell of the immune system). Fish is also rich in omega-3 fats, which assist in reducing inflammation, increasing airflow, and protecting the lungs. Six ounces per week is the goal (that’s about the size of your whole hand)!

Beef: Zinc helps white blood cells develop, and beef is a standout source of this nutrient.  Athletes with even a mild deficiency of zinc are more susceptible to infection. Make sure when selecting beef to choose lean cuts such as flank steak or filet.

Sweet potatoes: This fiber-rich root vegetable is also rich in Vitamin A, which helps build connective tissue, such as skin. Did you know your skin is the first line of defense for fighting bacterial and other infections? Sweet potatoes aren’t just for Thanksgiving—youngsters can eat them year-round to keep their immune system strong.

Grapefruit: Not only a good source of Vitamin C, grapefruit is loaded with flavenoids, which help activate the immune system. Have youngsters try a fresh, whole grapefruit or grapefruit juice.

Although food alone isn’t likely to determine whether or not a young athlete gets sick over the winter, these foods, coupled with adequate sleep, minimal stress, hand-washing and regular exercise will increase the odds against it.

Go ahead and make that bowl of oatmeal with almonds and blueberries for your young athlete. Have them eat that yogurt every day, and try a dinner of beef or homemade fish sticks with sweet potato oven fries and sautéed cabbage.

Regular sources of immune-boosting foods, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the diet will help athletes fight illness, while giving those little bodies great nutrition!

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. She is the creator of Just The Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Questions? Contact her at

Related Stories

Subscribe to get the latest news