Even before I became a parent myself, I'd experienced the power of food to comfort during illness. Readily prepared with a bucket of cleaning supplies and a handful of amazing home remedies, my mother welcomed flu season with the resolve of a seasoned caregiver. Aside from the basics (lots of fluid, a quick face steam and herbal tea), she always offered specific foods she swore would make me better—or, at the very least, make me feel better.
Although I had zero to nothing in terms of an appetite—especially when I felt something as bad as the flu coming on—she always got me to eat. Her secret? She'd disguise the nutrient-packed healthy ingredient in a flavorful and delicious dish that was easy to consume, even with cold or flu symptoms. These meals were always quick to settle an upset stomach, soothe an inflamed throat and even loosen up congestion.
Caused by several types of influenza viruses, the seasonal flu is a contagious illness of the respiratory system. When something as potentially serious as the flu is involved, the yearly vaccine and everyday preventive actions, like handwashing and avoiding close contact with sick people, are the best lines of defense. Still, a select few healthy foods can also be helpful when you're fighting this common, cold-like illness. Remember: since the flu is a virus, these foods won't cure the actual flu itself—but they may be able to lessen symptoms such as a sore throat, aches and pains, weakness and nausea.
Pictured Recipe: Soothing Ginger-Lemon Tea
When you're experiencing aches and pains induced by the flu (and potentially by an accompanying high fever), reach for ginger. Research suggests that the sweet spice can reduce joint swelling and pain intensity. These perks can be attributed to compounds in the ginger plant, which may help reduce inflammation and increase the speed of digestion. Ginger has been proven to help prevent nausea: a recent study involving women experiencing nausea from chemotherapy found that consuming powdered ginger twice a day cut down on the number of vomiting episodes and reduced feelings of nausea.
How to Prepare It: There's really nothing like a hot cup of tea to soothe an itchy, red throat. Sipping on ginger-lemon tea will provide all the immune-boosting benefits ginger has to offer, while acting as a natural lozenge for the throat.
Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Both aged and raw garlic contain a type of fiber called fructans, which can help you digest food better and even jump-start the immune system. So if you're experiencing any diarrhea or queasiness during the flu, give garlic a try. To really reap all the benefits it has to offer, chop up raw garlic and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare other ingredients. This allows time for the beneficial compounds to activate. Another reason to munch on garlic? According to the International Journal of Green Pharmacy's 2016 review, garlic extracts can help our bodies ward off a few different viruses, including rhinovirus (cause of the common cold), as well as influenza.
How to Prepare It: This easy-to-make garlic mashed potato dish boasts 6 garlic cloves, plus warm chicken broth to up the comfort-food factor. Since consuming carbohydrates can help with nausea, it's the perfect thing to nibble on when you're feeling queasy.
Pictured Recipe: Fireside Beef Stew
If you've got a stash of frozen beef in the freezer, thaw some when you feel any signs of the flu coming on. Beef contains high amounts of zinc, an essential mineral. Low bodily zinc levels weaken our immune systems, making us more susceptible to viruses, including the flu. So, consuming zinc-rich foods—like beef—may be protective during flu season. Beef's protein can help too (see #4, below).
How to Prepare It: This super-simple beef stew recipe is filled with nutritious veggies, simmered with allspice and garlic. The best part? It's made in the slow cooker, so you don't need to put in too much effort while you're feeling under the weather.
Pictured Recipe: Bean & Barley Soup
Small but mighty, beans deliver nutrients that do a body good. They're high in fiber and minerals, but their main flu-fighting component is protein. When you're weakened by an illness, protein helps build your body back up by balancing fluid, enhancing the immune system's response, and building and repairing cells. If you're fighting the flu, make it a point to consume protein-rich foods like beans. Although most of us usually eat enough protein daily, when we're feeling under the weather it's easy to reach for carbs instead. Since beans probably don't top your list of cravings while you're sick, try putting them, or other protein-rich foods, in a comforting soup to get your fill.
How to Prepare It: Make beans more appetizing by incorporating them into a tasty soup. This bean and barley soup takes only a half hour to make, and will comfort you and help build your strength back up.
Read More: How Much Protein Do You Need?
Pictured Recipe: Citrus Berry Smoothie
There's a reason OJ has gotten such a sterling reputation when it comes to combating the common cold and flu. Aside from being super-refreshing, oranges—and all the other citrus fruits—are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals which impact the body in healthy ways. Citrus fruits' most powerful illness-fighting nutrient is vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps boost the immune system. Vitamin C won't cure the flu or other ailments, but it might help you feel better faster. Research on the common cold has found that people who regularly take vitamin C supplements may have milder symptoms and a shorter duration of illness.
How to Prepare It: Get your daily dose of citrus by sipping on this citrus berry smoothie. In addition to C-rich orange juice and berries, it's made with plain yogurt; yogurts' probiotics may help with gastrointestinal issues and immune function.
Pictured Recipe: Classic Chicken Soup
It just wouldn't be right to exclude chicken soup from this list—it's the classic comfort food for cold and flu season. And, fortunately, it isn't just a placebo: there's actually scientific evidence that stands behind the power of a warm bowl of chicken soup to make us feel better when we're experiencing flu or cold symptoms. Lab research has found that chicken soup triggers the common white blood cells in our bodies that work to defend against infection, which could potentially help reduce respiratory tract inflammation. Plus, just the steam from hot soup of any kind is sure to loosen up stuffy sinuses and provide some warm comfort.
How to Prepare It: When you're sick, don't experiment too much with extra flavors or unique ingredients. Instead, make a classic chicken soup with chicken, noodles and mild veggies.
Related: Chicken Soup Recipes to Fight a Cold
The yearly vaccine is the best way to prevent getting sick with the flu, and medical attention (including antiviral medication) may be needed if you're severely ill. Drink plenty of fluids and rest up. And remember that these delicious, nutritious foods are worth a try to help you feel better.