5 of the Best Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold—And 3 to Avoid

Find out if that chicken soup is as good for the sniffles as it is for the soul.

You’re going to want to keep the tissues handy; the average American adult deals with two to three colds each year, according to CDC estimates. While washing your hands, limiting exposure to those who are sick, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces regularly continue to be your best ways to prevent a cold, you can strengthen your body’s natural defenses by way of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We've rounded up some of the best foods to eat when you have a cold.

“There isn't a magic food that will cure a cold. There are certain foods that may help support aspects of the immune system, though, possibly resulting in the body being able to combat infection or inflammation more effectively,” explains Lauren Manaker MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Old-Fashioned Chicken Noodle Soup
Blaine Moats

So with that in mind, we asked Manaker and Katherine Brooking, RD, co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco to help us determine those cold-combatting vitamins and minerals. We’re dishing up the best foods to eat when you have a cold. Each item on the list packs in as many of those immune-supporting qualities as possible per bite.

What to Look For in the Best Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold

As a general rule, the best foods to eat when you have a cold are the same as the best foods to eat any time to reduce risk for chronic diseases and to promote a long, healthy life.

“Eating a well-rounded diet—one that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats—can help us keep all of our cells running optimally, including the cells of our immune system,” Brooking says. “To date, we don’t have an abundance of data to state definitively that specific foods will shorten the duration of a cold or help you feel better more quickly. However, there are some studies that support the benefits of certain foods to help with colds.” 

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can also help the growth and maintenance of the microbiome (the diverse array of good bacteria that reside in our digestive tract), which plays a surprisingly large role in our internal immunity. In addition to promoting healthy digestion and regularity, gut health makes up about 70% of our overall immune system, UCLA Health experts confirm. 

Related: 8 Great Foods for Gut Health—Plus 4 to Avoid, According to Experts 

Beyond those general food categories, a few key micronutrients have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells, Brooking says, including:

  • Iron is a component in enzymes that are critical for immune cell function. 
  • Sources: Red meat, beans, nuts, oysters, spinach, tofu, and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Vitamin A helps protect against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system healthy and strong. 
  • Sources: Sweet potato, spinach, carrots, dairy, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, eggs.
  • Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies as well as the production, function and movement of white blood cells. 
  • Sources: Red and green bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin D helps regulate antimicrobial proteins that can directly kill pathogens.
  • Sources: Sunlight, fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified dairy, and mushrooms grown under UV lights.
  • Vitamin E works as an antioxidant to protect the integrity of cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals. 
  • Sources: Seeds, nuts, vegetable oils, peanut butter, spinach, and broccoli.
  • Zinc plays a role in wound healing and supports the immune response. 
  • Sources: Oysters, beef, pork, turkey, shrimp, lentils, dairy, seeds, and nuts.

Related: Smart Ideas for Getting More Vitamin D Right Now 

The Best Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold

The following foods to eat when you have a cold are soothing, comforting, and offer some of those immune-supporting qualities mentioned above.

Chicken Soup

Eating chicken soup during an illness may sound like an old wives’ tale, Manaker admits, but there is some science that suggests that eating it during illness may offer some healing benefits. (She and Brooking share this tip with the note that more studies are necessary to confirm this link.) Vegetable soups, bean and veggie soups, and other similar nutrient-rich bowls count if chicken isn’t your top choice.

“Healthy soups can possibly help lower inflammation and reduce congestion. Soup is hydrating, nourishing, and for many, holds soothing emotional value that may help us feel better psychologically,” Brooking says. Bonus points if said soup calls for garlic on the ingredient list.

“Since garlic may have antimicrobial and antiviral properties, including it in your diet when you are sick may help you feel better, although more data is needed to make this link,” Manaker says. 

It certainly can’t hurt to chow down on a few more cloves, so try this Bone-In Chicken Noodle Soup, Tomatillo Chicken Soup, or Chicken, Escarole, and Orecchiette Soup.


Like soup, hot tea can help reduce nasal congestion. 

“Tea also contains polyphenols,” Brooking says. “These natural substances found in plants have a large number of potential health benefits, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.”

Cozy up to one or all of these six hot tea recipes as you rest and recover.


Feel free to add a drizzle of honey (we adore manuka honey) to sweeten up that tea.

According to a meta-analysis of 14 studies, “honey can reduce the frequency and severity of nighttime coughing, in some cases, even better than over-the-counter cough syrups,” Brooking says.

If honey-spiked tea doesn’t sound appealing, get your dose in this Sweet Honey-Ginger Beet and Mango Smoothies or start your day with Orange-Honey Overnight Oats

Citrus Fruits

We just rated them as one of the most hydrating foods to promote a healthy skin and body, and now, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, clementines, and all members of the citrus fruit family earn another accolade from Brooking and Manaker: they’re one of the best foods to eat when you have a cold. Beyond the H2O, citrus fruits deliver vitamin C and other plant compounds that help the immune system function properly, Brooking says.

Perk up your menu with Citrus Salsa Salmon, Citrus Wheat Berry Salad, Crispy Chicken and Citrus Salad with Honey-Dijon Vinaigrette, or Sticky Roasted Carrots with Citrus


Any fruit or vegetable with a natural blue, purple, black, or red hue likely gets that tint from anthocyanins, one of the plant-based chemicals in the flavonoid family. Brooking says that anthocyanins  have strong anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-boosting effects. While they’re in dozens of plant-based foods, berries have more anthocyanins than any other category of foods, the Cleveland Clinic reports. 

Get your fix in our Honey Fruit Salad, Chicken and Strawberry Panzanella, Blackberry-Ginger Overnight Bulgur, or a Raspberry-Rhubarb Smoothie

Related: What Is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet? (Plus Signs of Chronic Inflammation to Look For)

The Worst Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold

Chronic inflammation puts our natural defenses on, well, defense, to fight back against something that’s shifted our body out of balance, many of the worst foods to eat when you have a cold promote inflammation. Others lead to dehydration, which can impede the healing process, the Mayo Clinic says.

Candy, Sugar-Sweetened Drinks, or Anything High in Added Sugars

Added sugar can trigger inflammation, “and this has been shown to decrease immunity by weakening the white blood cells that are responsible for fighting infection,” Brooking says.

Instead of soda, try infused water, and treat yourself to one of these low-sugar desserts rather than reaching for candy or other sugar-laden baked goods.

Fast Food or Other Items High in Saturated Fat

Saturated fat can als increase inflammation within the body, Brooking advises, so try to limit items such as butter, full-fat cheese, milk, and ice cream, processed breakfast meats, and deep-fried food.

If you’re in the mood for crispy, fast food-style cuisine, try these tasty air-fryer recipes. Since saturated fat is only found in animal products, consider swapping in a vegan dessert or nondairy ice cream in place of your usual store-bought cake or pint of ice cream.


Since wine, beer, and cocktails can promote inflammation and potentially weaken white blood cells—not to mention lead to dehydration—Manaker and Brooking suggest taking a break until you’re feeling happy and healthy enough to really enjoy happy hour. 

“Hydration is important when you’re sick because it helps the kidneys do their job of filtering waste from your body, so you can recover more quickly,” Brooking says.

If you’re feeling festive enough for more than water or tea, try making a low-sugar spirit-free sip with one of these nonalcoholic drinks.

The Bottom Line

The best Rx to feel better fast? Rest, time, and a well-balanced menu to support recovery. These nutrient-dense, hydrating, and soothing foods and drinks that deliver a dose of immune system-supporting vitamins and minerals are among the best foods to eat when you have a cold. To promote healing, limit added sugars, foods high in saturated fat, and alcohol.

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