Boost Your Immunity With These Brown-Bag Lunches

Upgrade your lunch with these healthful ingredients and recipes to help you stay well throughout flu season.

Pita pocket sandwiches

by NEA Member Benefits

It’s an understatement to say that an educator’s day is hectic. But that’s no excuse to skip lunch.

As an educator, you’re on the front lines of cold and flu season, and skipping meals weakens your immune system and leaves you vulnerable to every bug that runs through the school.

A little planning is all it takes to make a healthy, satisfying lunch and stay strong. If your lunch includes these immunity-boosting components, you’ll be in good shape:

Lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. Citrus, bell peppers, broccoli, cantaloupe and other produce are all good sources of vitamin C, an infection-fighting antioxidant. Soups and salads are a great start for veggie-packed lunches. When it comes to sandwiches, think beyond the usual lettuce-tomato-onion trio for creative ways to add even more vegetables. Grated carrots lend crunch. Roasted red bell peppers add smokiness. You get the idea.

Add protein. It keeps you satisfied through the afternoon and helps your body manufacture infection-fighting antibodies. Choose lean sources of protein, such as low-fat dairy, chicken, hard-cooked eggs, turkey, tofu, fish and beans.

Go for whole grains. Whole wheat bread, quinoa, whole wheat couscous, even a bowl of oatmeal (it’s not just for breakfast)—these are all great sources of selenium, zinc and beta glucan to support your immune system.

Add some nuts and seeds. They’re full of infection-fighting vitamin E. Use them to dress up salads, toss them with a whole-grain pilaf or just nosh them as a snack.

Drink up. You already know you should drink lots of fluids when you get sick, but did you know that staying well hydrated helps prevent catching a bug in the first place? Water, low-fat milk and unsweetened tea are all great options. And all those fruits and veggies you packed? Those also help you stay hydrated.

Finish with an ounce of dark chocolate. It has as many antioxidants as red wine and helps support your overall immunity. It’s good for your digestion, too. Choose chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao.

Need more inspiration? Here are three super-easy, healing lunch recipes:

1. Immunity-boosting pita sandwich

This colorful sandwich is packed with immunity-enhancing ingredients, including vitamin C-rich red bell peppers and flavorful hummus for protein. If you can’t find whole wheat pita pockets, substitute two slices of your favorite hearty whole-grain bread.

1 whole wheat pita bread
1/3 cup store-bought hummus
1/4 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
2 tablespoons thinly-sliced red onion
2 tablespoons thinly-sliced cucumber
2 tomato slices
2 leaves romaine lettuce, torn
1 tablespoon crumbled feta cheese

Cut the pita bread in half and carefully separate each half to open the pocket. Divide the hummus, bell pepper, onion, cucumber, tomato and lettuce evenly between each pocket. Sprinkle each half evenly with feta.

2. Quick chicken noodle soup

Why wait until you get sick to have chicken soup? This easy version will help keep you from getting sick in the first place. Pick up a rotisserie chicken to make this soup on Sunday and freeze it in lunch-size portions in quart-size, zip-top plastic freezer bags.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
3/4 pound chopped, cooked chicken
8 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti, broken into bite-size pieces

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and carrots; sauté 5 minutes. Add bell pepper, thyme and garlic; sauté 3 minutes or until vegetables are lightly browned. Add broth, water and chicken; bring to a boil. Add spaghetti; cook 8 minutes or until noodles are tender.

Adapted from the Foods that Harm/Foods that Heal Cookbook (Reader’s Digest).

3. Make-ahead kale salad

This salad has three infection-fighting ingredients: vitamin A-rich kale to help protect your respiratory system, lemon for vitamin C, and garlic, which contains allicin, a compound that may help prevent and shorten the duration of colds. Round this out with a hard-cooked egg or grilled chicken, toasted almonds and crusty bread.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup finely-grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped or pushed through a garlic press
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 (7-ounce) bunch kale, cleaned, trimmed and torn into bite-size pieces

Combine olive oil, lemon juice, cheese, garlic and pepper in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add kale, tossing to combine. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving (to allow the acid in the dressing to soften in the hearty greens), and refrigerate up to 3 days.

In addition to eating a healthful lunch, snacking throughout the day is critical to provide your body and brain with a steady supply of glucose to run efficiently. Find out which healthy snacks can help you feel energized and alert throughout the school day.