Secrets of Healthy Kids

Turns out it takes more than an apple a day to keep your little ones out of the doctor’s office. Here’s what you need to make this fall their healthiest yet.
By Melody Warnick

POP QUIZ: Besides homework and art projects, what’s your kid likely to bring home during the first few weeks of school? That’s right, a cold. But it’s not just exposure to the germs of hundreds of other children that’ll keep her bed-bound. Creeping stress levels and poor eating habits also are to blame. Of course, apart from putting your kids in a plastic bubble, there’s no surefire way to keep them healthy. That’s why experts recommend that you focus on the tried-and-true, such as managing stress, eating whole foods, and fending off germs. No big surprises there, but for kids, an ounce of prevention matters even more than it does for you. “By the time you’re 20, you’ve been exposed to most illnesses, and your immune system knows how to handle them,” says Kathi Kemper, MD, author of The Holistic Pediatrician (Harper Collins, 2002) and a professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Kids, on the other hand, are more susceptible to getting sick than adults, because a child’s immune system is still inexperienced.” So what’s a parent to do? Help your kids follow these rules for stressing less, eating better, and dealing with the inevitable germs that come their way. Here’s how. 

Stress Less
Any transition provokes anxiety, but going back to school, with its brand-new rules and social minefields, can be a bona fide stress fest. That not only affects your child’s behavior—classic signs of stress include irritability, difficulty focusing, and trouble learning—but it also makes her more likely to get sick. “Stress is really hard on the immune system—especially a child’s,” says Lynea Gillen, coauthor of Yoga Calm for Children: Educating Heart, Mind, and Body (Three Pebble Press, 2008). “Think of stress as an attack on your kid’s body. If her body is busy dealing with the stress, it won’t have the bandwidth to manage any foreign bodies that come into it, like illness-causing germs.” Here’s how to help calm children so they stay well, mentally and physically:

Encourage some fun in the sun. You know how great you feel after you hit the gym or take a power walk? A little exercise has the same mood-boosting, stress-busting effects for kids. A study by the American College of Sports Medicine shows that playing sports can even help your child excel academically. Bonus: The more she plays outside, the more much-needed vitamin D she’ll soak up from the sun. “It’s thought that one of the reasons that viral infections are more common in winter months is that we’re spending less time in the sun, so our vitamin D levels go way down, reducing our germ resistance,” says Kemper. In the fall, 15 to 20 minutes outside four times a week should supply enough of this nutrient.

Crank up the tunes. Is your teen’s iPod practically an extension of her body? It’s a good thing that listening to music has been shown to lower blood pressure and anxiety in both kids and adults. If your child isn’t above listening to your music suggestions, slip him a playlist of classical works (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1”) or acoustic rock (Jack Johnson, Dar Williams) to boost concentration and calm. 

Do yoga together. More schools are turning to this ancient practice for a midday relaxation break, but even if yoga isn’t part of your child’s curriculum, you can teach a few poses at home. Warrior I, for instance, with legs stretched wide and arms raised, “calls us to attention and demands both physical and mental strength, while the upward lift of the arms and head symbolize victory,” says Jim Gillen, coauthor of Yoga Calm for Children: Educating Heart, Mind, and Body (Three Pebble Press, 2008). That makes it a great confidence booster to do just before a big test. (For more great yoga moves to try with children, visit

Help children find their happy place. Visualization can help kids tap into their imagination and restore calm, says Jed Schlackman, LMHC, a holistic psychotherapist in Miami. “Ask your child to close his eyes and picture himself in a place where everything is peaceful,” he says. “His body will react as if he’s actually in that peaceful place.” To help your child conjure up a favorite, calming spot—whether it’s the forest you hiked through last summer or his favorite room in the house—ask questions that evoke all five senses, such as, “What can you see? What do you hear? How does the sun feel on your skin?” The more sensory details he fills in, the more his body will be convinced that it’s time to chill. 

Unwind on foot. Ditch the dinner dishes, and head out for an after-supper stroll together. Teens are more likely to spill the news about their day if you’re doing something else, like walking. And once they’ve vented, they’ll feel calmer and sleep better. The end-of-the-day exercise endorphins will help you relax, too. 

Just breathe. Our breathing becomes quick and shallow when we’re anxious. But if we force ourselves to take slow, deep hits of oxygen, it’s like sending the body an all-clear signal, which elicits a relaxation response. To make it easier for children to breathe deeply, Lynea hands them a Hoberman sphere—a plastic ball composed of folding joints—and teaches them to open it while inhaling and close it while exhaling. The visual element helps them breathe slowly. (Buy a Hoberman sphere at; $17.) Another trick: teach your grade-schooler to pretend she’s slowly blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Eat Well.
Unhealthy diets loaded with junk food take their toll on our youth: More than 17 percent of American children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. In the short term, a nutrient-deficient diet makes it difficult for kids to stave off illness. “One of the biggest immune-system offenders is inflammation—and the biggest contributor to inflammation is high-sugar and processed foods,” says Norma Kayte O’Dell, a certified nutritional therapy practitioner in Beaverton, Oregon. Normally, the body mobilizes its natural immune defenses to combat acute illnesses or injuries such as a sore throat or a cut, but when you’re overweight, your immune system shifts into overdrive and attacks healthy cells and tissue. The resulting chronic inflammation can lead to a host of health woes, from the common cold to more serious diseases. While more school cafeterias are trading greasy, high-fat fare for freshly prepared foods, you can revamp even a picky eater’s diet right at home. Here’s how:

Enlist your kids’ help. When your child makes his own lunch (or at least helps), he’ll be less likely to toss it or trade it, says Ann Cooper, coauthor of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (Collins Living, 2006). “Part of the reason Lunchables caught on is that kids like to have lots of little things to choose from,” she says. “So how about pita chips, veggies and dip, and cut-up apples?” Even a classic PB&J can be healthy if you use whole-grain bread, natural peanut butter, and low-sugar fruit spread. Having kids help plan meals and shop for groceries can also translate to fewer dinnertime protests.

Play snack detective. Lots of cafeterias still brim with foods packed with unhealthy ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, MSG, aspartame, food additives, and dyes. If you teach your teens to check food labels at home, they’ll also become label sleuths at school. Even better, make sure most of the foods your kids eat don’t even have an ingredients list. “The majority of what we’re buying for our kids shouldn’t need a label,” says Cooper.

Make healthy options readily available. Easy access to nutritious after-school snacks makes kids of all ages more likely to pick carrot sticks and raw red peppers over microwaveable pizzas and potato chips. Plus, research shows that the more colors we see, the more we eat—so load up on a rainbow of veggies and fruits (but steer clear of those variety snack packs).

Feast on fish. Essential fatty acids from olive oil, fish, and flaxseed keep your child’s brain running like a well-oiled machine by providing the good omega-3 fats that support cognitive function. A 2009 Swedish study found that teen boys who ate fish at least once a week scored better on intelligence tests than non–fish eaters, so serve grilled salmon the night before your high schooler’s big geometry test. Got a fish hater? We like Carlson for Kids Chewable DHA ($12.88, 60 softgel tablets; and Coromega Child Brain & Body High DHA Omega-3 Lemon Lime Squeezers ($21.99, 30 servings;

Dine together. In a recent University of Minnesota study, tweens and teens who ate with their families at least five times a week consumed more veggies, fiber, calcium, and vitamins and minerals. The problem? As teens get older and their schedules get more hectic, shared meals drop off by about 30 percent. Solution: Find a time to eat together at least a few times a week, whether it’s a pancake breakfast or a Saturday afternoon lunch, and you’ll have a better shot at squeezing in all the nutrients your kids need.

Fight Germs
For your kids, the best thing about back-to-school time is seeing all their old friends again—but that’s exactly what makes them prone to landing on the couch with a cold. “When you’re around a whole bunch of other kids and somebody gets sick, it’s easier for it to spread around,” says David Becker, MD, an integrative pediatrician and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Boost your child’s immune defenses by adding these tricks to your stay-well arsenal: 

Don’t underestimate the power of sleep. When your kids don’t get enough z’s, they’re three times more likely to catch a cold—possibly because sleep deprivation impairs immune cells that fight infection. But tweens and teens who have been blowing off bedtime during summer vacation often have difficulty adapting to an earlier start. To adjust sleep schedules for school, set the alarm 15 minutes earlier each day the week before school begins, slowly inching up wake-up times. If your kid is still struggling to sleep, ban television, computer time, and video games an hour before bedtime, since the bright light can throw off a child’s natural circadian rhythm, making it harder to nod off.

Supplement the smart way. Some studies suggest that taking black elderberry extract increases the body’s levels of cytokines, molecules secreted by immune cells to help fight off the flu virus and other pathogens. Talk to your child’s doctor about the right mix of immunity-boosting supplements for your little one’s needs. “When my 12-year-old son starts to get sick, I give him chewable black elderberry, extra vitamin C, and some echinacea,” says Kemper. “He hasn’t had a cold in a while.” Our favorite black elderberry supplement: Sambucol’s Black Elderberry Immune System Support Liquid for Kids, ($12.99, 4 oz; For extra C, try Kangavites Vitamin C chewable tablets ($8.10, 90 tablets; And for an echinacea supplement that tastes so great your kids may actually ask for it, go for Wish Garden Herbal Remedies Sweet Echinacea ($11.69, 1 oz;

Make hand washing a habit. You’ve heard it before: Simple hand washing works wonders when it comes to staving off illness. But while antibacterial soap or gel is what’s on hand at school, research from the Mayo Clinic shows that antibacterials may actually contribute to the spread of superbugs—antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause longer-lasting, harder-to-treat illnesses. At home, try CleanWell’s All-Natural Hand Sanitizer in orange-vanilla or ginger-bergamot ($9.99 for two 1 oz sanitizers plus one 9.5 oz hand wash;; it uses plant extracts instead of harsh chemicals. 

Provide some probiotics. Some research shows that giving kids probiotics—friendly bacteria like those found in the human stomach—may stave off respiratory and gastrointestinal infections—and if your child gets diarrhea, probiotics will clear it up a day or two faster. To boost your child’s intake, serve yogurt with live active cultures; we also love Good- Belly’s dairy-free probiotic juices. And if your child’s doctor thinks a supplement would help, try Ultimate Probiotic Children’s Formula, ($24.95, 2 oz powder; or Culturelle’s Probiotics for Kids! ($29.99, 30 packets;

Have a back-up plan. On-the-go meals and dinners at friends’ houses can throw even the healthiest eaters off track. The answer? Give your child a good multivitamin, says Kemper. “We can preach that you should eat more spinach and broccoli, but kids are still eating cheese doodles and french fries. A multivitamin is a way to make sure your kids get all the essential nutrients they may not get through their diet.” Aim to buy a kid’s multi that is dye-free, has less than 1 gram of sugar per serving, and contains no more than 1,300 IU of vitamin A (one study found that most popular kid’s vitamins contained excessive vitamin A, which can cause nausea, blurred vision, and liver problems). We recommend NatraBio Children’s Multivitamin Liquid ($11.69,4 oz;

Melody Warnick is an Iowa-based freelance writer and mom of two.