Strengthening our immune system with the right foods doesn’t have to be difficult－especially when an experienced dietitian hand picks 10 antioxidant-rich recipes that are approachable, flexible and deliciously enjoyable!
Who doesn’t want a healthy immune system? We’ve all been told to “eat the rainbow,” get plenty of anti-oxidants, and keep processed foods to a minimum. (Of course, healthy sleep patterns and regular exercise help, too.)
While the right foods can absolutely strengthen our immune system, the reality is that, to do their best job, our bodies require a steady dose of anti-oxidant-rich foods over time. Sadly, the vitamin C in a big juicy orange won’t provide a quick fix when the telltale scratchy throat strikes.
To make getting our daily dose of immune-enhancing foods easier, it helps to identify meals that fit easily into our daily lifestyles. Turmeric may be a superfood, but if we can’t find a way to regularly make use of it in our cooking, it won’t be so helpful.
No doubt we are all hoping for a robust immune system now more than ever, so I asked Cheryl Herold, a registered dietitian with extensive experience in a hospital setting, for her best advice.
Not only did Cheryl take time to explain why certain foods can enhance our bodies’ ability to fight disease; she also created a top 10 list of approachable, every day recipes to help us achieve that goal.
Plus there are detailed nutritional profiles included below each recipe for those who are interested. For future convenience, I’ve transferred this information to the actual recipe posts, and we will work over time (as opposed to overtime!) to add this type of information to more of the recipes on this site.
Many of you may appreciate that Cheryl’s list doesn’t read like health food per se. It includes a wide variety of flavorful, stick-to-your-ribs fare that can be modified based on season and personal needs.
For example, Asian food, which is often considered too high in sodium to be healthy, even makes the cut. And for those who must be extremely vigilant about sodium intake, helpful suggestions and modifications are included.
P.S. Cheryl is also the mastermind behind Protein Packed Peanut Butter Balls, which have quickly become a new favorite in our house!
What are anti-oxidants anyway?
Antioxidants are compounds found in many foods that may help protect the cells in our bodies against damage from unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radicals cause cell damage and are believed to play a role in the aging process, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Antioxidants act as an anti-inflammatory and help prevent this damage.
Some examples of antioxidants include vitamin C, which is found in many fruits and vegetables including oranges, kiwi, tomatoes, and strawberries; vitamin E, found in nuts, avocado, whole grains, and vegetable oils; selenium, found in wheat germ, fish and shellfish, and nuts (especially brazil nuts); and carotenoids, found in many fruits and vegetables.
Additionally, many foods have phytonutrients and flavonoids, which act like antioxidants, such as catechins, found in green tea and chocolate; anthocyanins, found in blueberries; resveratrol, found in red wine; and curcumin, found in turmeric.
As a bonus, many foods that are high in antioxidants are also are loaded with additional vitamins and minerals which help boost our immune system to fight off infections and diseases.
So which recipes would Cheryl, a registered dietitian with years of experience working with patients in a hospital setting, choose－and why?
Are you on a low-sodium diet? Cheryl has provided secondary suggestions and nutritional stats reflecting adjustments that can be made by those who are trying to reduce added salt. Because we don’t want this to mean less flavor for those who must follow these guidelines, I often recommend reserving some or all of the salt to sprinkle over the plated meal just before serving. This way, the seasoning hits your tongue more readily and a little bit can offer more impact. Similar logic can be applied to sugar in many, but not all, recipes.
According the Cheryl, “The following 10 recipes are packed with antioxidant and vitamin rich foods to help keep your health and immune system in tip top shape!”
Nutritional profile: Makes 4 servings. Per serving: Calories 90, Total Fat 7 gm, Saturated fat 1 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 150 mg, Total Carbohydrate 8 gm, Dietary fiber 4 gm, Protein 1.5 gm
Nutrition Tips: Avocados are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and also good sources of fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, E, and K, pantothenic acid, and copper. Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, which has been found to reduce the risk for heart disease and some cancers, as well as vitamins C, K, potassium, and folate. Try this salsa mixed with beans and rice in a burrito bowl or serve over chicken or fish.
Nutritional profile calculated using unsweetened almond milk; makes 6 servings. Per serving: Calories 375, Total Fat 20 gm, Saturated Fat 11 gm, Cholesterol 31 mg, Sodium 310 mg, Total Carbohydrate 47 gm, Dietary Fiber 6.6 gm, Protein 7.5 gm
Nutrition Tips: Blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant contents of all fruits. The blueberry is an excellent source of the antioxidant anthocyanin, as well as vitamins C, B complex, E, A, copper (a very effective immune builder and anti-bacterial), selenium, and zinc. Oats are a nutrition powerhouse that provide soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar and promote healthy gut bacterial growth. Whole oats are also rich in avenanthramides, a powerful antioxidant which may help lower blood pressure levels and may have anti-inflammatory and anti-itching properties. Almonds are a good source of healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, protein, vitamin E, magnesium, riboflavin and antioxidant flavonoids.
One Pan Teriyaki Salmon & Vegetables: Heart-healthy salmon is given an Asian twist in this quick and easy, veggie-rich recipe that offers a convenient shortcut.
Nutritional profile: 4 servings. Per serving: Calories: 315, Total Fat 10 gm, Saturated Fat 1.5 gm, Cholesterol 75 mg, Sodium 875 mg, Total Carbohydrate 22 gm, Dietary Fiber 2 gm, Protein 35 gm
Nutrition Tips: Salmon is an excellent source of protein, Vitamin D, which is important for bone health, and the antioxidant selenium. It also contains one of the highest amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA of all fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids, which means our body cannot produce them so we must rely on food sources in our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in anti-inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride regulation, and may help prevent heart disease and mental health disorders. Helpful hint: When possible, use wild caught salmon, which typically contains fewer calories and saturated fat and more protein and omega-3 fatty acids than farmed salmon, which can contain higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Also sustainably-fished wild salmon has a lower impact on our environment.
On a low-sodium diet? To lower the sodium content, reduce the teriyaki sauce in the recipe to ¼ cup which reduces the sodium to 435 mg per serving.
3-Ingredient Teriyaki Brussels Sprouts & Lentil Stir Fry: With just three main ingredients, this protein-rich, plant-based meal is a dream on a busy night. Enjoy it as is or use the recipe as a framework and customize to taste. (Suggestions are provided.)
Nutritional profile based on 2 generous servings. Per serving: Calories 370, Total Fat 7.5 gm, Saturated Fat 1 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 950 mg, Total Carbohydrates 56 gm, Dietary Fiber 21 gm, Protein 24 gm
Nutrition Tips: a ½ cup serving of Brussels sprouts provides more vitamin C than an orange, as well as fiber, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin B-6, folate, potassium, and manganese. Brussels sprouts also contain the phytochemical glucosinolate, a powerful antioxidant that has been found to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer_ and anti-diabetic properties. Lentils are packed with protein and fiber and are naturally low in fat and are cholesterol-free.
On a low-sodium diet? This recipe is calculated on 2 hearty, protein and fiber packed servings, although you may opt for 3 servings, which still makes a pretty generous portion but reduces the sodium to 425 mg per serving and brings the calories to 250 per serving, with 5 gm total fat, 37 gm total carbohydrates, 14 gm dietary fiber, and 16 gm protein. Cheryl further reduced the sodium content by reducing the teriyaki sauce to 1 tbsp and adding 1 tbsp reduced sodium soy sauce and 1 tbsp low sodium vegetable broth. These changes result in a sodium count of 640 mg per serving when serving 2, or 426mg when serving 3.
Nutritional profile: 4 servings. Calories Per serving: 380, Total fat 9 gm, Saturated fat 1 gm, Cholesterol 35 mg, Sodium 975 mg, Total Carbohydrate 54 gm, Dietary Fiber 12 gm, Protein 25 gm
Nutrition Tips: Beans are a good source of protein, fiber, manganese, and folate, and also boast a number of health benefits, including their ability to reduce cholesterol, decrease blood sugar levels and increase healthy gut bacteria. Tomatoes are packed with fiber, vitamin C and K, potassium, folate, and iron. Tomatoes are also a major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
On a low-sodium diet? Try using ¼ tsp kosher salt－and consider sprinkling it over the plated servings so you taste it more readily－and use no-salt beans. These changes will reduce the sodium to 450 mg per serving.
Lemon Dijon Kale Salad with Sweet Potatoes & Apples: With its combination of creamy, crunchy and crisp ingredients, this wholesome salad is sure to satisfy－and leftovers hold up well. For a hearty, all-in-one meal, top with grilled or roasted chicken or salmon. White beans or seared tofu offer complementary meatless alternatives.
Nutritional profile: 6 servings. Calories per serving: 255, Total Fat 12.5 gm, Saturated Fat 1.5 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 515 mg (using unsalted almonds), Total Carbohydrates 31 gm, Dietary Fiber 5 gm, Protein 5.6 gm
Nutrition Tips: This dish is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. Kale contains some protein and omega-3 fatty acids, and is a good source of fiber, vitamins A, C, K, folate, potassium, calcium, and zinc. It also contains the antioxidant phytochemicals lutein and zeaxanthin, nutrients that give kale its dark green color and help against macular degeneration and cataracts. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of dietary fiber, beta carotene, an antioxidant that our body can convert to vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium.
On a low-sodium diet? Skip adding salt to the kale when tossing and reduced the total amount of salt used in this recipe to ¼ tsp. This will reduce the sodium content to 275 mg per serving. If you’d still like more flavor, try adding a handful of dried cranberries.
Roasted Delicata Squash & Pomegranate Salad: Radiant jewel tones make this versatile salad as stunning as it is healthy. It’s equally perfect on a holiday table or paired with a simple protein any night of the week. Feel free to substitute any winter squash (or even sweet potatoes) or use dried cranberries in place of pomegranate. Frozen and thawed pomegranate seeds offer another worthy year round option.
Nutritional profile: 8 servings. Calories per serving: 140, Total fat 9 gm, Saturated fat 1.5 gm, Cholesterol 4 mg, Sodium 240 gm, Total Carbohydrates 9 gm, Dietary fiber 3 gm, Protein 3 gm. If you skip the feta, you’ll also reduce the total fat content to 7.5 gm, Saturated Fat 1 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 115 mg
Nutrition Tips: The recipe analysis above uses half of the pumpkin vinaigrette, or about ½ cup, which conveniently leaves plenty of leftover for another night. I actually tend to use a little less than ½ cup, so if you prefer a lighter coating of dressing, you could shave off a few more calories without skimping on flavor－and stretch the dressing to accommodate three salads! Cheryl also mentions that you could try using reduced fat feta cheese instead of full fat feta.
Winter Breakfast Bowl: Don’t let the name or out-of-season fruit dissuade you, this satisfying bowl is flexible and can be easily customized according to season. Great for busy mornings, too!
Nutritional profile: 1 serving. Calories per serving: 340, Total Fat 2 gm, Saturated Fat 0.5 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 75 mg, Total Carbohydrates 75 gm, Dietary Fiber 11 gm, Protein 9.5 gm
Nutrition Tips: This recipe is loaded with vitamins, antioxidants and fiber from the fruits and granola and protein and calcium from the yogurt! You can use store bought granola for this recipe but be aware, there are many types of granola out there. Many can be loaded with lots of added sugar and fats. It is important to read the food label, and choose a granola that has less than 8 grams of added sugar, and less than 3 grams of saturated fat. Stay away from granola that has a lot of added dried fruits and chocolate chips, which can increase the added sugar content. Check the ingredients list, and if there are several kinds of added sugars like corn syrup, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup or honey, or they are high up on the ingredient list, you can assume there is more added sugar than you need.
Recipe suggestion: Lolita’s Low Sugar Granola (which is shown in the photo above) has become one of my favorites to have on hand. With just 2.8 grams of sugar per serving, the recipe exceeds the recommendations above and tastes great, too. The recipe makes a big batch, and the granola will keep for over a month in the refrigerator and freezes well.
5-Ingredient Very Berry Smoothie (with freezer smoothie pack option): Loaded with filling protein, healthy fats, and a hearty dose of fruit (and optional veggie), this smoothie checks all the proverbial boxes—and tastes great, too. For grab-and-go convenience, smoothie packs (second picture below) can be quickly assembled and stored in the freezer.
Nutritional profile: 2 servings. Option 1: using skim milk, all natural peanut butter (without added sugar) and unflavored whey protein powder: Calories per serving 215, Total fat 5 gm, Saturated fat 1.5 gm, Cholesterol 19 mg, Sodium 145 mg, Total carbohydrates 30 gm, Dietary Fiber 5 gm, Protein 14 gm. Option 2: using unsweetened almond milk, all natural peanut butter and unflavored whey protein powder: Calories per serving 190, Total Fat 6 gm, Saturated fat 1 gm, Cholesterol 17 gm, Sodium 180 mg, Total Carbohydrates 25 gm, Dietary fiber 5 gm, Protein 11 gm. Option 3: adding ½ tbsp honey (not called for in recipe but for those who may like a sweeter smoothie) adds an additional 16 calories and 4 grams carbohydrates per serving.
Nutrition Tips: These smoothies are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, healthy fats, protein and calcium from the berries/fruit, nut butter and milk. I’ve enjoyed many for an easy breakfast or lunch－and Cheryl has, too! Note that it’s important to read the labels on the nut butter you choose, as some may contain added fats and sugars. Cheryl recommends choosing an all natural nut butter with no added fat, sugar, or sodium.
Nutritional profile: 8 servings using half and half: Calories per serving 140, Total Fat 7 gm, Saturated Fat 3 gm, Cholesterol 12 mg, Sodium 350 mg, Total Carbohydrate 16 gm, Dietary Fiber 4 gm, Protein 4 gm
Nutrition Tips: Using full fat cream will increase the calories per serving to 190, total fat to 13 gm, and saturated fat to 6.5 gm. Using regular coconut milk will increase the calories per serving to 150, total fat 9 gm, and saturated fat to 6 gm. You can also cut out some fat and saturated fat by substituting cashew milk for the half and half for the following nutrition stats: Calories per serving 105, Total Fat 4 gm, Saturated fat 0 gm, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 350 mg, Total Carbohydrates 16 gm, Dietary Fiber 4 gm, Protein 4 gm.
A few more things: This soup is a powerhouse of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants from the broccoli and kale as well as fiber and complex carbohydrates from the potatoes. For added protein and even more fiber you can add cooked white beans or lentils, quinoa, or whole grain brown rice.