How to promote mental health in children through good nutrition

parent and child holding hands

How to promote mental health in children through good nutrition

This is a guest post from Terri Finbow, RD. Terri focuses on nutrition for mental health at

Childhood and adolescence are critical periods of development that help build the foundation for good physical and mental health throughout the lifespan. Yet, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 70 percent of those with a mental illness see the onset of their symptoms before age 18.

Mental illness affects approximately 1.2 million Canadian children and youth by the age of 25. Promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives show positive outcomes in child and adolescent mental health in the long term.  Early intervention works similarly with mental well-being as with physical health. Treat a wound before it becomes infected; care for initial behaviour or emotional concerns before they worsen, become more complex, and develop further conditions.

Investigating and experimenting with new ways we can support our children early on helps them learn how to cope with the stressors of daily life and difficult emotions, and develop resiliency. However, with more and more children and youth struggling with their mental well-being and a healthcare system with long waitlists, parents can feel like they are at a loss for what to do, facing an impossible situation.

What can we do to support mental health in children while awaiting mental health services? Read on to learn more.

How does nutrition affect mental health?

Some experts suggest that one place we can start to support our children’s mental health and well-being is at the kitchen table. Strong evidence demonstrates that quality diet and nutrition greatly influences the mental and physical health of children and adolescents. A healthy diet is involved in brain development, cognition, and normal body functioning.

child digging into a fruit bowl

For example, eating various nourishing foods (such as fruits and veggies) has been shown to boost mood, concentration, and energy levels in children and youth. Proper nourishment has also been associated with improved academic performance, physical endurance, brain development. And confidence in themselves, their bodies, and their abilities!

As a parent, you are in a unique and influential position to encourage how your child eats every day. You also have ample opportunities to role model a healthy diet and mindset around eating, body image, and lifestyle choices. These habits can serve as a solid base for your child’s lifelong physical and mental health.​

But what do healthy eating behaviours and mindset for children look like? As we head into another school year and settle back into a routine, consider these best practices for establishing nourishing eating habits. These habits will help support the physical and mental health of the children and youth in your life.

Tips to support children’s mental health with food

1) Encourage a variety of whole foods when possible.

No single almighty brain food can ensure optimal brain functioning. But there is compelling evidence to show that eating patterns that emphasize consuming a variety of whole food choices may nurture good mental health, positive mood and lower risk of depression in children & adolescents.

Nutrient-dense foods include:

  • antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables (frozen and canned count too!),
  • fibre-rich whole grains and whole wheat products,
  • lean protein sources, such as poultry, fish, pulses, legumes, soy, eggs, and dairy,
  • unsaturated fats, including plant oils, fatty fish (for omega-3 fatty acids), avocados, olives, nuts, seeds and their butters.

Try these strategies to help encourage your child to broaden their intake of nutritious foods:

  • Offer a mix of your child’s favourite foods and some new foods at meals and in their lunch boxes.
  • Don’t pressure your child to try new foods. Let your children decide how much to eat based on how hungry they feel.
  • Keep in mind that everyone has foods they do and do not like. So make sure there is at least one food on the dinner table that your child enjoys. That way, they don’t go hungry (and you’re not stuck as a short-order cook!).
  • Remember that your child’s appetite fluctuates just like adults. One day they may eat a lot and another day they may not eat much at all.
  • Provide snacks to fill nutrient gaps at set times throughout the day. Such as veggie sticks and dip, fresh fruit and yogurt, or cheese and crackers.

2) Don’t demonize sweets & treats

Studies conducted worldwide have demonstrated that a dietary pattern higher in added sugar and processed foods is linked to emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents. However, that is not to say fun foods should be avoided altogether. Restriction can also foster an unhealthy relationship with food.

Instead, normalize fun foods by avoiding good/bad food talk and refraining from using food as a reward or bribe. For more tips on managing kids and sweets check out this blog.

Another strategy to normalize fun foods is to serve these foods alongside other whole foods during snack or meal times. This allows the child to self-regulate. And lets them know that these foods will always be available and they do not need to overindulge when served because they will be available again. Pairing fun foods high in sugar with other whole foods also slows digestion, preventing dramatic spikes and dips in blood sugar, which can influence mood and behaviour.

3) Prepare meals together

Planning, shopping, and preparing meals together is a great way to teach your children about where their food comes from. Along with valuable cooking and life skills, such as food safety and budgeting. It also makes them more likely to eat something they have helped create!

Children new to the kitchen can help with simple tasks, such as gathering ingredients, tearing up lettuce, rinsing fruits and veggies, or sprinkling cheese. Kids with more experience can assist with cracking eggs, reading off and measuring ingredients, pouring batter into muffin tins, or picking herbs or veggies from your home garden.

Remember, the meal doesn’t have to be full of perfect dietary choices. It’s the time together that’s important.

Eating together as a family supports nutrition and mental health for children

Mealtimes are an excellent opportunity to bring the family together; the benefits of eating together go far beyond nutrition. It is an ideal time for family members to establish a routine, connect, and explore new foods, including cultural and traditional foods.

Relaxed and routine family mealtimes provide the opportunity to share laughter and support one another, if needed. These experiences can also give kids a more positive outlook on life, boost their communication skills and improve their self-esteem.

If you find it difficult to plan family meals with busy household schedules, start by choosing a meal time that works best with your family’s schedule. This may be breakfast, lunch, or supper. and plan just a few family meals during the week or when you are less busy, like on weekends.

Planning themed meals is a great way to get your kids excited and engaged with the eating experience.

Some family meal theme ideas include:

  • Having an indoor or backyard picnic. Offer a variety of finger foods like veggies, fruit, whole grain crackers, cheese, nuts, and seeds. Lay a blanket in the living room or yard and enjoy the meal together.
  • Build your own pizza or taco night. Lay out a variety of toppings and let your child explore the options and various flavour combinations.
  • Breakfast for supper. Depending on your family schedule or energy level that day, you can keep it simple with cereal or take it up a notch with Belgian waffles or pancakes topped with yogurt and fruit, veggie omelets and toast, Huevos Rancheros, or a full English breakfast.
  • Globetrotter night. Spin a globe or pick a spot on a world map, and then choose a traditional dish to cook from that region.

4) Be a role model for positive body image attitudes and behaviours

In today’s world, children are exposed to a steady stream of images, videos, and messaging about physical appearance and society’s narrow beauty standards. It is difficult to escape the idea that one should look a certain way.

Research from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) reveals that concerns about body image are starting in some children as young as three. And that childcare professionals have seen children in their care aged between 3 and 5 years old show signs that they are unhappy with their appearance or bodies.

The negative emotions associated with not looking the way they feel they “should” can take a toll on a child’s self-esteem and perceived body image. This can lead to disordered eating and/or exercise patterns. Or, in some cases, the development of severe medical conditions, such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or an Eating Disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

As a parent, you can encourage your child to have a healthy relationship with food and body by leading by example. For instance:

  • Try including a wide variety of foods in your family’s diet.
  • Refrain from labelling food as good/bad. Instead, focus on the nourishment that food provides and encourage flexibility in eating patterns.
  • Abstain from diet talk and from making negative comments about your own appearance or the appearance of others.
  • Work on modelling a healthy acceptance of your own body. Teach your children to accept and celebrate the natural diversity of body shapes and sizes.
  • Engage in regular physical activity as a family and keep the focus on health, fun and enjoyment.
  • Give your children opportunities to appreciate their body for what it can do rather than what it looks like.
  • Encourage your children to question, challenge, and be critical of society’s narrow ideals of beauty or attractiveness.
  • Know when to seek professional help. If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour and attitude towards eating and body image, please speak to your doctor. These feelings may be signs of a more serious problem such as depression or an eating disorder. Spotting problems early may help prevent more serious problems later on.

Early intervention initiatives are key for positive outcomes in child and adolescent mental well-being. One of these early intervention initiatives includes helping children establish a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Nutrition that supports mental health for children needs to decrease the stress and anxiety related to food. This will look different for every family. Please reach out to a dietitian to support your family in creating a healthy food environment.

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