Foods That Boost Your Child's Moods - Ask a Nutritionist

May 16, 2024

Join Kristi Kalinsky, RD, LD, a registered and licensed dietitian and mom herself, as she explores how the foods we feed our children impact their moods and overall well-being. Learn about the connection between processed foods and behavioral changes, and get tips for breakfast, lunch, and snacks that will keep your kids energized and happy. Tune in for expert advice and actionable tips to help your child thrive!

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KRISTI: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's Ask a Nutritionist podcast brought to you by Nutritional Weight & Wellness. I'm Kristi Kalinsky, a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. We're thrilled to be celebrating 20 years on air, discussing the connection between what you eat and how you feel, while sharing practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition.

Thank you for your support and listening over the years. If you're enjoying the podcast you've been listening to, let us know by leaving a rating or review on Apple podcast or Spotify. Now let's dive into today's question from one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners.

The question is “What can I feed my child or teen in order to make sure they're feeling happy?” So when I saw this question, it really spoke to me partially because I'm a dietitian, but also because I'm a mom. I have a 20 year old daughter who's in college and I have a 15 year old son who is in high school.

So, personally, I get the day to day struggles with kids and food. I know, they can cause so much friction and a lot of tension in the house, and, let's admit it, it's just not fun. So, I love working with kids and teens and their parents to help overcome some of these food challenges. And let's look at this.

Processed foods are harmful for mental health & behavior

Here's where the struggle really starts. There are endless amounts of processed foods out there, otherwise known as junk food. The big food companies out there are very, very smart. They know how to make them taste really good. They put addictive chemicals in there, sugars, you name it. And what that does is it hits those pleasure centers in our brains and it makes us want to eat them over and over again.

They're also very good at being able to advertise and market these food products to attract teens and kids too to buy their foods. So you might be asking, “What's my drive to want my kids to eat real foods versus these ultra processed foods like chips, cookies, muffins, candy, or soda?” My drive really comes through seeing my kids’ behavior change, either good or bad, when they're eating these real or processed foods.

So let me give you an example. My son this past weekend had a sleepover at a friend's house and when he came home, I asked him how it was. I asked him what he had to eat and he shared vanilla wafers, potato chips, and donuts. So guess what? When he eats food like that, there is a flip of a switch in his personality. He's grumpier, he scowls more than he smiles, he's mumbling under his breath, he gives dirty looks. It's not very pleasant at our house, so I know when he's making better food choices that he's a much more pleasant person to be around.

As a dietitian, through the years that I had my training and education, I've learned the connection between food and heart disease, food and diabetes, food and digestive problems like diarrhea and constipation. Did you ever stop to think that there's a connection between anxiety and depression and just overall moods in general and how it ties to what you're eating?

Statistics on depression & anxiety in kids & teens

It's actually really interesting. I know that depression and anxiety is higher now than ever in teens, but I wanted to do a little more research for this podcast. And here are some statistics I found. In the National Health Interview Survey, which took place in July of 2021 to December of 2022; so this was post COVID; 21 percent of kids aged 12 to 17 had some type of anxiety or depression over the past two weeks.

And another study I found from the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 31 percent of teens are struggling with some type of anxiety disorder. 31%. That's almost a third of teens out there. That's alarming.

How is processed food connected to bad moods & mental illness?

So now that we know this, how is food connected to these types of moods? Or they're actually classified as mental illnesses. There's a wonderful book out there that was written by Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey. It's called The Happiness Diet. And what it does is it breaks down and provides a prescription for a sharper brain, better moods, and to have a more energized body.

I love what he titled chapter three. It's called “Bad Foods, Bad Moods”. He outlines how these ultra processed foods affect us and how we feel. So what he went on to explain is these bad foods or these ultra processed foods cause people to get irritated really easily and they have trouble focusing.

And this is what I found really interesting when I was reading the book: sugar, especially foods that are high in sugar, cause higher rates of depression and it actually shrinks your brain. So we can apply this to kids and teens, but think about it as adults too. This is happening to us as well if we're eating these types of foods.

So no wonder we're not mentally feeling well. So let's start by looking at what kids are eating. You know, the first meal of the day is breakfast. So let's talk about that. And I'd like to ask all the parents out there, do you guys know what they're serving for breakfast at school? I know here in the state of Minnesota they recently passed a bill that allows free breakfast and free lunches at school, which is nice, until I found out what they were serving.

So my son recently informed me at high school, for breakfast, they're passing out Pop Tarts, cereal, and sun butter and jelly sandwiches as the kids are walking into school. These foods are considered ultra processed or junk food. And these kids are consuming them on a regular basis. The kids like how they taste and that's all they care about.

They don't really think how it affects them down the road. So what's going to happen though, inside their bodies after they eat these types of foods? So their blood sugar is just going to shoot up and soar. They could experience anxiety, feel hyper. They could have problems sitting still, maybe not be able to focus.

And then how our body responds is it, our blood sugar then crashes and it can cause them to be moody. They have problems thinking clearly. They can't concentrate and they'll be tired. My son's friend, one of them, actually he falls asleep in school, after lunch or after breakfast sometimes when he's eating these foods.

So I know when my son chooses to eat these breakfast foods, even after he's eaten breakfast at home or in the car, he comes home crabbier than normal. And again, less smiling, more grumbling. And honestly, it makes sense. These ultra processed foods inflame the brain and they impair brain function. So this book, The Happiness Diet, it also goes on to relate good foods to good moods, which create less anxiety and less depression.

So, here's the thing. They didn't list, like, the soda, sugary granola bars, Pop Tarts, coffee drinks, macaroni and cheese, cereal. They suggested real whole foods, like wild caught salmon and shrimp and cherry tomatoes and watermelon and beets. You know, that's all well and good. Most of us parents know what our kids should be eating, but it's actually hard to put it into practice knowing that most kids don't always voluntarily want to eat healthy, or they're just really picky.

Good mood breakfast ideas

So this is where I step in, right? What are some good brain foods you can feed your child that they'll actually eat so they have good moods and good memories? So I'll start at my house and just share what we do. So school starts very early for the high school kids. And then sometimes my son has before school activities that he has to be at.

So, we are leaving the house at 6:15 in the morning. It's quite a sight at our house. His eyes are barely open. He's kind of stumbling around the house trying to get out the door. Literally, he is not going to wake up any earlier than he absolutely has to especially when it's that early in the morning.

So, his choice would be I'm going to skip breakfast so I can get more sleep. So I know if he does this, he isn't going to have the energy he needs for the day or be able to think clearly in class and he's going to be hangry, which is hungry and angry by the time lunch rolls around and he's not going to be pleasant in the classroom.

So here's what I do to help offset this. I'll make a protein shake the night before we're going to be leaving early in the morning. What I do is I put one scoop of a good quality grass fed protein powder in a blender with a small banana and a few tablespoons of peanut butter and a little water. That makes it runny enough to drink and it helps blend it.

And then I put it in the refrigerator. And in the morning I grab it out of the fridge as we're running out the door. I give it a couple shakes and I hand it to him and then he drinks the protein shake on the way to school. So on weekends, or maybe the later mornings when he doesn't have to be to school quite as early, his favorite breakfast is a few scrambled eggs with some nitrate free bacon that I fry up in a pan, and then I serve it with a small bowl of berries on the side.

I love working with teens. I really enjoy listening to what they like to eat, and then I create and provide a meal plan that they're happy with. And this meal plan is going to involve a hearty breakfast, like some of the examples I just suggested, followed by packing a great lunch, and then having a delicious after school snack in the fridge or maybe in their backpack, and then having a healthy dinner at night.

So what this is going to do is going to give them good brain power, better moods, less anxiety, and less depression. We're going to take a quick break. And when you get back, we will dive into more ideas on good foods you can be feeding your child and teen for good moods.


Lunch ideas

Welcome back! So let's look at our next meal of the day. That would be lunch. So, lunch foods at school are going to be just as ultra processed as the breakfast options that they're providing. I asked my son the other day what some of the kids at school were eating, and he said chicken nuggets, French fries, and cookies.

And I thought, oh boy, that's probably not the best option that you can be eating at lunchtime. Again, right; those ultra processed foods. So, a lot of the teen clients I work with, and then my son most of the time too, will pack their own lunches for school. And when I talk about packing a cold lunch, a lot of people think the typical sandwich and chips, maybe a juice box.

And I would encourage you to see if your child or teen could look outside of that typical bagged lunch and maybe try some alternatives. I know a lot of my teen and kid clients get a kick out of mini versions of things, so I don't know if you've been in the produce section and noticed like the mini cucumbers, the mini bell peppers, the tiny cherry tomatoes, the mini oranges, which are also called clementines or cuties, and as a bonus they're easy to peel, or pepitas. Those are baby pumpkin seeds.

Add maybe some rotisserie chicken to that for some protein. All of that is really easy to throw in a lunch bag. The other thing that I usually suggest is making their own Lunchables instead of buying them at the store with those ultra processed things that you get in there; the meat that doesn't even look like meat or, and they come with cookies and all other kinds of junk.

Make your own Lunchable instead. Usually I tell them to pick some type of Italian meat they like, like pepperoni or salami. I'll just ask that it be nitrate free and then pair it with some organic mini cheese slices and some whole grain crackers, and then add some grapes to it. There's some fun grapes out there right now. They're cotton candy grapes. I don't know if anyone's seen those, but they're green. They literally taste like cotton candy. They're a huge hit with kids and adults too.

And then maybe some olives. I know my younger clients like black olives. They'll put them on their fingers, and then they'll eat them off at lunchtime. They think that's so fun. Again, all this stuff is super easy to throw in a lunch bag the night before you head to school. So here's the added bonus to packing a lunch that my son mentions. He doesn't have to stand in the long lines at the cafeteria, so that gives him more time to eat, and it gives him more time to talk to his friends. And it's a win for me, too. Because he is going to have more stable moods and a better functioning brain.

After school snack ideas

So, let's fast forward to after school. What does your house look like after school? I know at our house, it's a whirlwind, right? And I think most of my clients that have teens and kids say the same thing. It's just crazy busy that time of day. I know my son walks into the house complaining of being hungry. He barely greets me and he runs to the refrigerator and he's looking for something to eat.

And he needs something quick as most kids and teens do, because they've got either sports practices to go to or music lessons. A huge hit at our house are the protein balls off our website, which is So there are three protein ball recipes on our website, but the peanut butter ball recipe seems to be the most popular with kids and teens. And if you have a peanut allergy in your house, you can always substitute almond butter or sun butter and replace it with peanut butter.

It's five ingredients. That's it. You just dump it in a bowl, stir it up and roll it into balls. You can keep the balls in the refrigerator. You can keep them in the freezer. They can even throw them in their backpack the morning of, as long as they're going to eat them right after school. What I really like about them, they have protein for their muscles, they have fat for their brains, and they have good carbs to fuel their bodies.

So, I always like to suggest having your kid or teen make these on the weekend. It seems like when kids get involved in the kitchen, they're learning valuable cooking skills, but they also take ownership of what they're eating and they're more likely to eat it when they've had a hand in making it.

Family dinner ideas

So let's look at family dinners. I know a fan favorite is the beef stir fry recipe off our website. So that one has a lot of vegetables in it. And if your kids don't like certain vegetables, then swap it out for a different one that they enjoy. For example, there's pea pods in that recipe, and that's not a favorite at our house. So instead I use green beans. I thought this was really interesting. One of our dietitians at a meeting we had a while ago shared that her son was turning 16 and she asked him where he wanted to go out to eat to celebrate so she could make a reservation.

And he actually asked to have the beef stir fry at home to celebrate his birthday instead of going out to dinner. So I honestly think that speaks volumes to how good that recipe is. And what about the chicken nuggets, right? They're either seeing them at school or they're maybe asking for them at a fast food restaurant. Did you know the average chicken nugget out there has 35 ingredients? 35; and most of them you can't even pronounce.

If you try the chicken nugget recipe off our website, it has five ingredients, not 35. It's chicken, egg, cracker crumbs or almond flour, and a few seasonings. You literally just dip the chicken in the egg wash and then place both sides of the chicken in the cracker crumb or almond flour with the seasonings and you cook it in the oven. It's so simple. You could serve it with a baked sweet potato and maybe some roasted broccoli for a complete meal that will disappear in a hurry.

Tips on empowering kids to make good food choices

So I'll tell you this about surrounding food in our house for our meals and snacks. I think the best thing I ever did with my two kiddos was I took them to the grocery store with me and I started doing that at a really early age. I think that they thought they were helping me carry groceries, which that was an added bonus. I actually took them because I wanted to expose them to all the different types of foods out there and I wanted to get their input on what we should have in our house.

That made him feel empowered when I gave them some control, but it also opened the door to have some discussions about what good choices were and why some choices weren't so great. Those lessons have actually made an impression and this is how I know. So I think I mentioned my daughter's in college. When she comes home, she likes to go to the grocery store with me still at age 20. She plays a game with me. She'll pick up a food product and look at the ingredients, and she'll say, don't tell me, Mom.

Let me figure out what's in this and if it's healthy or not. She starts listing off the things that she knows aren't good before I even get a word in, and then she puts that back on the shelf, and then she starts the challenge all over again with the different food. And she complained about having to eat healthier than her friends when she was growing up, but I think now she actually gets it.

And I had this parent ah ha moment as she was doing this. She actually learned something. That is a valuable skill for her to have as I launch her off into the world. And I always tell my parents that I work with, your kids may not thank you now, but you're teaching them how to eat well as they grow up, leave the house, and they're on their own. And honestly, what greater gift is there than that? So if you struggle with getting your kid or teen to make healthier choices, make an appointment with us.

Schedule Nutrition Counseling

A lot of times kids and teens are more willing to listen to pretty much any other adult but mom and dad. I mentioned that they are a favorite group of mine to work with and it is so rewarding to see their progress and how much better they feel with less anxiety, less depression, and happier moods when they start eating real whole foods.

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