Your Child's Mental Health Starts In The Kitchen

March 11, 2023

In this show we are going to tackle the topic of supporting the child in your life if they have emotional outbursts, mood swings, apathy, or problems focusing. Have you ever considered that their low moods, depression, anxiety, or issues related to attention or behavior, could be related to what they are eating? A lot of the emotional ups and downs are biochemical and often related to nutrition. Let’s talk about how to set up our kids’ bodies and brains so they are less reactive and more resilient to manage regular, daily growing up challenges.

Listen below, or subscribe to our podcasts through Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook Community!

This private group moderated by Nutritional Weight & Wellness nutritionists and nutrition educators provides our Dishing Up Nutrition podcast and radio show listeners with a safe, supportive community to ask questions, share ideas, get inspired, and access special Dishing Up Nutrition bonus content.

Podcast Powered by Podbean

Similar Podcast Episodes:

Print Transcript


KARA: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition. Today's show is brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We're a company specializing in life-changing nutrition education and counseling. If you're a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, caregiver, or maybe you're around children that are special to you on a regular basis, well, chances are you've seen moods or behaviors from these kids that might be less than desirable. Have you ever considered that their low moods, depression, anxiety, maybe it's issues related to attention or behavior; have you ever considered that that could be related to what they're eating?

You know, if the child you're caring for has emotional outbursts, mood swings, maybe they seem kind of apathetic or have problems focusing, do you jump to the conclusion that they're misbehaving or rebellious or lazy? So I have to admit, even though I'm a nutritionist, and I, I know all this intellectually, I'm also a mom to a preteen.


The biochemical connections to mental health

KARA: And I still often fall into that trap of thinking my daughter's out to get me. She's purposely trying to frustrate me, you know, when she's struggling with those outbursts or moods or refusing to do homework, which happened last night. As a parent, it's easy to get caught up emotionally when kids aren't cooperating like we want them to. So what I've learned, and I just have to keep reminding myself over and over, is that a lot of the emotional ups and downs are biochemical.

MELANIE: For sure.

KARA: And they're often related to nutrition. Right?

MELANIE: They are. I mean, I think it's their job description to sort of be your rubbing stone during those preteen and teenage years. I mean, any child is going to challenge be, you know, and so they, they do come out of it. My girls are…

KARA: Oh, good.

MELANIE: …are, are grown and, and easy. But you know, we had our, we had our struggles. But knowing that there's that biochemical connection is so important. It's so true. And maybe the meltdown on the way to elementary school really has nothing to do with what's going on at school. And that's what we're going to talk about. It would've been maybe what they ate. It could be breakfast cereal and milk. Maybe they just had juice because they're rushing out the door or some fruit, and this can cause a high, and then a low in blood sugar, and it fluctuates those blood sugars. And then that leads to those mood meltdowns nobody wants to face.

KARA: You are so correct. And you know, maybe it's not elementary school. You might have a middle schooler who is a picky eater. Let's just say they're a picky eater. That's pretty common. Seems like they always want pasta and bread. Maybe their teachers even reported that they're not focusing very well during the school day. That lack of focus could be biochemical. It could be coming from low dopamine. Dopamine is that brain chemical that helps with focus and energy. And it's hard for bodies and brains to make enough dopamine if they're not getting enough protein.

MELANIE: Yeah. That protein is so key. Or a 17-year-old really struggling with depression might be one of 95% of American children not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids from foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are really critical for mental health and brain function. So they can be tough to get from food sources, especially if a teen just doesn't like to eat fish or eggs very often, it's a struggle.

KARA: So let's just do quick introductions and then we'll dive more into this important topic. My name is Kara Carper. I'm a Licensed Nutritionist and Certified Nutrition Specialist. I'm really pleased to have Melanie Beasley joining me today. That's the other voice that you were hearing.

MELANIE: Yeah. It's fun for us to be together. This is such an important topic, Kara. So many of my clients, friends and loved ones are concerned about mental health these days, especially the mental health of their children and grandchildren. My name's Melanie Beasley. I'm a Licensed and Registered Dietitian, and I see clients in the Eagan office, and I can speak to this because I have raised children, and that's what you, that's where your heart is. Your heart is in your child or your grandchild. And the title of our show is “Your Child's Mental Health Starts in Your Kitchen”. Kara and I want to help you make those connections between what your child is eating and the state of mental health. This is often overlooked, and we understand why.

KARA: Exactly. I do understand firsthand, I already mentioned that, but when parents get overwhelmed and they're dealing with their own personal stressors, which we all are. Let's face it. It's easy to become frustrated with kids when their moods are all over the place. But we really need to just keep taking a step back and realizing that kids don't want to misbehave. They don't want to be defiant. They certainly don't want to feel depressed, anxious, or unfocused.

MELANIE: Yeah. Like all of us. So listeners, think about a time you felt hangry. You know what I'm talking about. You missed a meal, you drank too much coffee, you got really irritable and hungry or hangry. Right: hungry and angry. When you lashed out at your spouse, maybe it was because you were hungry and that was leading you to being irritable.

KARA: That's a great example, Mel. You know, most of the time, kids want to do better, be better, and they want to feel better. So we're definitely, we're not saying that kids should be acting or behaving perfectly, because as you had alluded to, ups and downs are a part of growing and learning. But let's talk today about how we can set up our kids' bodies, how we can set up our kids' brains so that they are, are less reactive, and that they're more resilient to manage regular growing up challenges.

MELANIE: Yeah. Yeah. We briefly mentioned three examples of how low blood sugar, low protein intake, and being deficient in omega-3s can be factors that cause kids to have unstable emotions and moods. We'll explain this in more detail, and we'll also give some practical examples, including snack and meal ideas our very own nutritionists and dietitians use for their children.

KARA: That's going to be a fun part of the show today. In a fairly recent Dishing Up Nutrition episode, we had a special guest, Dr. Korn from Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Korn shared that you can change your mood with food. She also pointed out that this is a really new thought for most people. I think we tend to justify low moods for other reasons before considering changing nutrition, you know, whether that's for ourselves or for our children.

And Dr. Leslie Korn, she has a great book. It's called The Good Mood Kitchen, and it has some great recipes that support good moods. During the interview on Dishing Up Nutrition, she recommended the same things that we do for good moods: whole unprocessed foods, the ones that you buy at the grocery store and prepare at home, meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, and of course, those healthy oils and fats like butter and olive oil.

MELANIE: Yeah. We have to feed our brain for our brain to feel good. And I loved what you said that a lot of times we don't go to nutrition first to figure out what's causing that mood. And that was such a great show. And it's refreshing to find like-minded experts in the field. In her book, she also said that “Processed foods, which are full of sugars and damaged fats will not nourish and support a child's growing brain and body. They will only hurt it.” And we think we're just giving our child a snack.

KARA: I know. We'll talk more about that. You know, what to avoid and what to do for those snacks. As our country's coming up on three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues are at an all-time high. Before COVID-19 back in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control found one in five children had a mental disorder.

MELANIE: And in 2020, a survey of a thousand parents in the U.S. by the Children's Hospital of Chicago, found that “71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child's mental health.” And that's a quote. And 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child. Yikes. I am guessing many parents, grandparents, really, all of us can relate to that, Kara.

Balance the blood sugar to stabilize moods

KARA: Oh, for sure. We've talked in other shows about mental health and moods, and how stabilizing blood sugar or glucose levels is absolutely key: the most important thing when it comes to balancing moods. Mel, you know, I like to listen to nutrition podcasts and read up on nerdy nutrition facts.  

MELANIE: Yeah, we are nutrition nerds.

KARA: We all do. Well, recently I came across an interview. It was Chris Kresser, and Chris interviewed Autumn Smith. She's a co-owner of Paleo Valley, which is a very cool company that sells high quality meat products. They use regenerative farming practices. So just kind of an interesting podcast. She was a celebrity fitness trainer and dancer, but struggled with a lot of digestive issues and severe anxiety. Autumn learned through trial and error that blood sugar imbalances were the root cause of her anxiety.

MELANIE: Fascinating.

KARA: So when we come back from break, I'm going to share just a fantastic quote from her that kind of ties that all together.

MELANIE: Great. Great.

KARA: You're listening to Dishing Up Nutrition, and our topic today is “Your Child's Mental Health Starts in Your Kitchen”. Helen: she's our awesome project manager at Nutritional Weight and Wellness. She organizes our corporate wellness classes. Well, Helen had a really creative idea for today's show. So during our three commercial breaks, before or after, we will share ideas on what our dietitians are feeding their kids. So stay tuned, because when we come back, you will hear what Kristi Kalinsky made her teenage son for breakfast the other day, and he loved it. We'll be right back.


MELANIE: Welcome back to Dishing Up Nutrition. I'm Melanie Beasley, licensed dietitian here with Kara Carper, licensed nutritionist. We reached out to several of our dietitians on staff asking for meal and snack ideas they give to their kids. Kristi made her 14 year old son, Sam, a parfait earlier this week for breakfast. It's perfect for the chocolate lover, but if your child prefers a different flavor like vanilla, the this recipe could easily be tweaked.

So what it is, it's one cup plain, organic, full fat yogurt; could be Greek yogurt, regular. The key is to get it plain and not full of sugars or sweeteners; whole milk yogurt, then a half a scoop of chocolate protein powder. And Kristi used the chocolate Paleo Protein powder, which is delicious. You could easily swap this out for any of our vanilla protein powders. Then a half a cup of fresh or frozen raspberries or fruit of your choice. All the berries work great. Two tablespoons of unsweetened shredded coconut, two teaspoons of roasted cocoa nibs. Yum, Kristi. That sounds so good.

KARA: And with the full cup of plain whole milk yogurt, it really was a meal for Sam. Kristi mentioned that he could also put that together and create it as a snack as well.

MELANIE: Oh, yeah. It's like dessert for breakfast, but it's healthy.

KARA: Yeah. So Mel, I will just kind of recap what I was started talking about before break. Autumn Smith: dancer, celebrity fitness trainer, really struggling with digestive issues and severe anxiety. So here's a quote, and this is after she realized that her anxiety was stemming from imbalanced blood sugars. She said, “Imbalanced blood sugar often masquerades as mental health issues.” That really got me thinking.

MELANIE: Yeah, of course. We don't really make that connection like we were talking about earlier, but sometimes if, if you can even give your child an assist in feeling better with their mental health, this is an easy thing to do. And so to me, it sounds like what she meant is that having blood sugars that spike and crash can cause those moods, emotions, and feelings that seem unmanageable at the time. It can be so severe that these symptoms of imbalanced blood sugars appear to be a mental health issue. And that brings me back to when your children are small and they're having a meltdown when they're hungry. Well, we're just bigger kids.

KARA: Yeah.

MELANIE: Bigger bodies.

KARA: Same biochemical reactions to up and down blood sugars. So Autumn went on to say in this interview that a high carbohydrate meal or a high sugar meal leads to a crash. And then we are irritable, restless, angry, hungry, or you had mentioned hangry. So she used to think that she was annoyed and mad at her husband, or that her life just generally felt unmanageable. And she also thought it was her fault. She was doing something wrong to feel so bad. Turns out it was a major blood sugar issue, and she had sensitive blood sugars like many of us do.

MELANIE: What a relief to figure that out. Well, the best plan is to start the day with balancing your blood sugar and to have a prevention plan. Kids who head off to school or daycare or summer job, and they either skip breakfast or grabbed a granola bar, cereal bar, or perhaps just a bowl of cereal and milk, well, that muffin or that cereal and milk are setting themselves up for a big sugar crash a few hours later. And those blood sugars will spike and then crash within an hour or two. The lows in blood sugar are what lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, lack of focus, even aggression. Those issues can come from a low blood sugar.

KARA: And some kids are more sensitive than others when it comes to blood sugars going up and down. So if your child had cereal for breakfast and is not acting out, you know, maybe they're not quite as sensitive. But because one in five children are struggling with mental health, chances are that unstable blood sugars are a big factor contributing to those high numbers.

MELANIE: For sure. A suggestion I give to my clients with kids is to try making one of our protein smoothie recipes. Most kids love it. It's quick. It can even be made ahead of a time. Put it in the freezer, take it out to thaw the night before; it's ready in the morning. I made one almost every morning for my girls when they were preteens and teenagers.

KARA: Did you?

MELANIE: Well, because they wouldn't get out the door on time. It was something they could take with them; made it sweet enough. It tasted like a milkshake. You know…

KARA: It's a real hit with…

MELANIE: It's a real hit.

KARA: With kids of all ages.

MELANIE: And then they would come back from college and say, oh, can you just make me one of those smoothies? I was so satisfied.

KARA: I love it. They're so fortunate that you did that. So at our break, we were sharing what dietitian, Kristi’s 14 year old son had for breakfast. It was that delicious sounding homemade yogurt parfait. Now, Kristi said he also likes to drink the peanut butter and jelly protein shake as a balanced breakfast, kind of that running out the door breakfast. So it has the same flavors as a PB and J sandwich, but instead of all the bread and the sugary jelly, it has vanilla protein powder, frozen mixed berries, peanut butter, and a scoop of berry flavored Key Greens and Fruits. And that's, I would say, that's optional. It even tastes delicious without the Key Greens. And you can put in water or maybe unsweetened almond milk as the liquid. And if you like a frozen texture or if your kid does just put some ice cubes in there.

MELANIE: Yeah. That water, you really, it's delicious. And the taste of the peanut butter is really a fun flavor to have. So, or depending on how much time parents or kids have in the morning, eggs and cheese scrambled in butter with a piece of fruit on the side could be an easy balanced breakfast.

KARA: Hard boiled eggs are also great; very convenient. I typically will boil a dozen every Sunday night.


KARA: It’s just kind of a routine. Then you can just grab a couple of hard-boiled eggs on your way out the door. We also like to keep the Applegate nitrate free sausages. They're cooked, they're pre-cooked, but we keep them in the freezer. And that's another way that kids can get protein for breakfast.

MELANIE: And I want to say about those dozen eggs, I had so many clients tell me how much they loved cooking dozen, the dozen eggs in an Instant Pot. I finally did it. Oh my gosh. 10 minutes in your Instant Pot. It peels like wrapping paper.

KARA: I really need to get an Instant Pot. Cause I keep hearing that about the eggs amongst a million other things that you can do.

MELANIE: Well, you think, well, how hard is it to boil eggs? But 10 minutes in the Instant Pot. It's the peeling that's a big joy for me.

KARA: Yeah. If you know you're going to peel those eggs like wrapping paper.

MELANIE: And the kids don't want to be messing and plucking at the peeling, so it works really good.

KARA: Nobody does. Nobody likes that.

MELANIE: Well, that combination of protein and healthy fats, and mostly veggie and some fruit carbs set up your children to start the day with balanced blood sugar. And this can help with mood's, behavior and their focus at school. And they're going to have fewer cravings for those snacks that they have in vending machines. We also should say that these are nutrient dense foods for brain function, their immunity and their healthy growing bodies.

KARA: Yes. So important. We have a lot of great articles too. So I encourage you to check out our website, Many of our nutritionists and dietitians have written articles on what they're feeding their kids. They give tips on how to pack lunches. I came across one that I wanted to do a shoutout for. It was August 30th, 2022. And Teresa Wagner wrote it. It's called Inside a Nutritionist’s Kids’ Lunch: a week of lunch Ideas.

MELANIE: And there's pictures.

KARA: Pictures of the little bento boxes. And, but you know, lunches don't have to be complicated. These were not complicated lunches. They just looked delicious. But if you're on Pinterest and you're seeing things, it's shaped as a star or a pinwheel, or maybe you're on Instagram, you might feel a lot of pressure. But it's just a simple formula for balancing your child's blood sugar. At lunch, choose a protein, choose a healthy fat, choose a vegetable, and maybe choose a fruit or a starch.

Here's a typical lunch that my daughter brings to school: chunks of cheese, pieces of nitrate-free pepperoni; again, we like the Applegate; a few gluten-free crackers, sliced up veggies. She likes cucumbers and olives. So honestly, Mel, the most time consuming part about that grab-and-go lunch is getting to the grocery store on the weekend to make sure the fridge is stocked and the cupboards are stocked.

MELANIE: Yeah. You can even get those little mini cucumbers.

KARA: Oh yeah. She likes those too.

MELANIE: You don't even have slice.

KARA: They're cute. Or those little mini peppers.

MELANIE: There's so much to be said with all the cute ways that you could, the boxes that they have now to keep the food separate so they don't touch each other. A lot of kids are like, ugh, and teenagers, they don't like it.

KARA: Great points.

MELANIE: If they, but they've got great little, almost bento box lunchboxes. Did you have those?

KARA: I do. Yeah. Because my daughter is one of those. She's more particular, like, I really don't want, I suppose nobody wants their cheese like touching their cucumber.

MELANIE: Or their peanut butter touching their olives? No.

KARA: Yeah. So we do have the separate container with the separators, so…

MELANIE: And they're cute.

KARA: Kids love stuff like that. All right. Well, it looks like it's time for another break. So we'll talk more about lunches and what to do after school in just a moment. You're listening to Dishing Up Nutrition, and today's topic is “What Foods Support the Mental Health of Children”. Children's brains have similar needs as adult brains, but their brains are growing and developing until they're 25 years old. It's even more important because of that, that they get nutrient dense foods rich in protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Processed foods and packages, things like chips, fruit rollups, cereal bars, and crackers, they're really lacking in those critical nutrients needed for good brain and mental health. So after break, we'll come back and share another real food snack idea that Leah Kleinschrodt gives to her son before preschool.


More balanced snack ideas

MELANIE: Welcome back. You're listening to Dishing Up Nutrition. I'm Melanie, and I'm here with Kara today. Leah, another dietitian here at NWW, has a great snack idea that she gives to her son, Landon, before she brings him to preschool. She knows that Landon's preschool usually gives the kids a processed carb snack; processed carbs like crackers, chips, any of those crunchy snacks in a bag or a wrapper, they're really empty calories and don't contain protein or healthy fat or other nutrients. We talked about nutrient dense foods.

The kids really need these nutrients to stabilize their moods and their energy. So she plans ahead and gives him either a string cheese or baby bell cheese: that's protein, and then slices up a banana and tops each slice with peanut butter, which is a real food carbohydrate and healthy fat. And that keeps his four-year-old brain balanced for several hours. I love, I used to make little peanut butter sandwiches with slices of banana, with peanut butter in the middle. The kids loved it.

KARA: Mm-Hmm.

MELANIE: Easy, right?

KARA: Yeah.

MELANIE: Nourishing. Well, Kara, you were talking about what you send your daughter to school with as lunch. So what about after school snacks? My girls used to get off the bus starving, wanting to eat anything and everything in the kitchen. So, you know, you got to be on your toes so they're not grabbing…

KARA: I'm ready. Believe me, when it gets to be like bus drop off time… things have not changed, Mel. After school timeframe really can range, depending on where the kids, what district they're in; might be 2:30. It might be as late as 4:30. Maybe even later with after school sports and activities. A balanced snack after school, it really is a must. Kids, they're looking to refuel after expending energy all day long. If left to their own devices, most kids would probably start scrounging in the cupboard, grabbing the chips, pretzels, crackers, maybe even the sweets, like the cookies or the candy. So we don't keep a lot of processed foods in our house, but we do have some snacky chip things. And if it were up to my daughter, she would always go right for that after school.

MELANIE: Oh yeah.

KARA: So I really do have to be on my toes and have something else ready.

MELANIE: I didn't really carry that stuff around because it would tempt me as mom. And I can remember my daughter opening up the refrigerator, looking in the pantry and saying, we have nothing to eat. And we, it was full.

KARA: Yeah.

MELANIE: But it wasn't anything that her friends were eating. So the nothing was really about, we have nothing that I can just grab out of a package.

KARA: Yep.

MELANIE: Do you just give her a different snack then?

KARA: Well, I do. And as a parent, I mean, I, I'm all for giving choices. I think that's important. But I usually will say, hey, Olivia, you know, would you like snack A or snack B? And then in those choices, I try to incorporate at least one thing I know she's going to like. So one example is from our website. There's a recipe for peanut butter protein balls.

MELANIE: Oh, they're so good.

KARA: They're so good. They're easy. You make them ahead of time. She also likes the nitrate free meat sticks. Sliced apple and nut butter is another hit; string cheese, frozen berries. She likes black olives. So I just try to kind of, you know, mix and match a protein, fat and carb.

MELANIE: Yum. I love that. I developed a few recipes that's on our website that you can check out on our website for after school snacks. For kids, there's like a pizza pocket muffin. You know, there's a few in there that are…

KARA: Yeah, that's a great one.

MELANIE: …that are great and easy, and you dip them in pizza sauce with a little mozzarella cheese. But what about picking up from school and going right to sports?

KARA: So if time is really crunched, I usually have a backup. There are some healthier protein bars on the market. The mini Perfect bars, which are refrigerated protein bars, those are pretty clean. RX bars are also a good choice. They don't have a lot of ingredients, but, you know, a lot of the snacks I just mentioned that I would give at home can be just easily packed in a cooler. Olives, fruit, meat sticks, cheese sticks. So you just, you know, put it in a bag with an ice pack and you're on your way to the extracurricular activities.

Adequate protein is key for mental health

MELANIE: Yeah. You've got stuff there. I always over pack snacks. So if I'm hungry, there’s something. As we talk about the importance of balancing blood sugar, I want to point out that a common denominator with our meal and snack ideas is that they all contain adequate protein. And the reason for that is protein plays a huge role when it comes to improving mental health. Eggs, chicken, turkey, meat, fish, whole milk products. Animal proteins contain the building blocks to make serotonin and dopamine. Those are our feel-good brain chemicals. A lot of children are avoiding meat and animal protein for different reasons.

Well, the big question I would ask parents to consider is if your child doesn't want to eat protein, ask them what is the reason and what is the state of their mental health and emotional health. If the state of their mental health is not great, not eating animal protein could be making the issue worse. So it's a conversation that you need to have and problem solve that. And sometimes you need a nutritionist or a dietitian to help you problem solve how to talk to your child.

KARA: As dietitians and nutritionists, we see some biochemical reasons that kids aren't eating protein. Some kids and adults as well lack digestive enzymes and stomach acid or hydrochloric acid that's needed to break down and absorb meat and animal protein. So of course, someone would have an aversion to meat if they were unable to digest it.

MELANIE: Yeah. Yeah. It, it sounds like what my clients will say is, I feel like there's a pit in my stomach, or it's so heavy in my stomach. And that could be a good sign that you're not digesting properly. Sometimes kids avoid protein because they want to be on a vegetarian or a vegan diet. And this can be, again, for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are environmental or personal. And if your child has chosen to eat a particular way and avoid a food such as animal protein, it's important to also pay attention to their mental health.

Since it's difficult to get certain nutrients for brain health without animal protein, vegan or vegetarian may not be the best fit biochemically. If there is depression, anxiety, anything like ADD or ADHD or other conditions like bipolar or schizophrenia, you really have to focus on how to get in enough protein for that brain health.

KARA: Yep. And there's other nutrients as well that are in animal protein: vitamin B12, iron, and of course we talked about the amino acids, tyrosine and tryptophan that convert into all those feel good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. We really need those. Kids need those as well to feel calm and focused. So really our goal today is just to educate because the mental health crisis in children has become so prevalent.

MELANIE: Yeah. It's scary and sad. Recently I had a mom who made an appointment with me because her daughter wants to take her competitive dance to the next level. And the mom was also being proactive and wanted to make sure her daughter was fueling her body, not only to be able to keep up with the energy and stamina for dance, but to have stable moods and still have focus and energy for her schoolwork and her youth activities and other things that were going on.

In some youth activities and communities, body weight and image becomes a focus. And striving for a certain weight or figure can really be dangerous and lead to restricting or cutting calories, eating low fat or other unhealthy eating patterns or habits. We really want to focus our children on being healthy, focus on their wellness, how they feel, and this is the conversation you want to be having with your children. How do you feel when you eat this way? Do you notice any difference? Right?

KARA: Absolutely.

MELANIE: So that they can start owning what they're eating.

KARA: Mm-Hmm. And making those connections too. You know?


KARA: If I eat this at school for lunch, I don't have as much energy for sports. We hear that all the time. You know?

MELANIE: Or my gut hurts.

KARA: Yeah. So helping them to make those connections. I mean, we know that deep down kids, teens of all ages, they really just want to be the best that they can and feel their best. But there might be pressure to look or to eat a certain way. So that's why we're just encouraging parents that are listening to pay attention, have a discussion about how they can fuel their bodies for optimal energy, good moods, and the performance they're looking for, strength and it gives them more confidence. So cutting calories and eating low fat, it's not healthy, especially for young people. And Mel, haven't we seen too many clients in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties or beyond?

MELANIE: Even seventies: yeah.

KARA: Whose parents, maybe a coach or a trainer, maybe innocently told them to go on a diet in elementary school. They were a bit overweight or maybe they were feeling pressured by this mentor figure to look a certain way for a sport activity or performance. We see this time and again, don't we?

MELANIE: We really do. I want to talk some more about that when we come back from break.

KARA: You're listening to Dishing Up Nutrition. I'm Kara Carper, licensed nutritionist. I'm here today with Melanie Beasley, licensed and registered dietitian. And our topic is “Your Child's Mental Health Starts in Your Kitchen”. If we had more time, I would share all the meal and snack ideas from all of our wonderful dietitians, but we are nearing the end of our show soon.

But we have time for a couple more examples. Nikki Doering gave us some ideas that her kindergartner Max likes. He likes some nitrate free meat sticks, and she gets them at Costco. Depending on where you live, nitrate free beef or turkey sticks are fairly available. They're becoming more and more common. So the meat stick that Max eats is paired with a serving of fruit, maybe half a cup, and then his choice of nuts. Very simple. Here's a meal that Max likes for dinner. It's our healthy chicken nugget recipe: it's on our website and steamed broccoli with some butter. So for recipes, she suggests making a big batch of those nuggets. They're a huge hit. And so you're going to want leftovers available. And of course, that broccoli, it could be fresh, but it could be frozen and just put in a steamer. We'll be right back.


MELANIE: Welcome back to Dishing Up Nutrition. And we've been discussing how to support your children's mental health by shopping and preparing meals at home in your kitchen. You'll notice a theme with all the ideas we've shared that our dietitians feed their kids. They're not coming from a box, wrapper or package. They all contain protein, healthy fat, and real food carbohydrate. We can't know what we know and love our, our children like we do, and not feed them the real food that we incorporate into our own lives. And they all have been simple recipe ideas that you can do that don't take all day to prepare. You might be surprised, infants should be eating this way once they're ready to start eating solid foods.

KARA: Yeah. And Nikki also has a nine-month-old daughter, Quinn, and she started to feed Quinn solids. Quinn really eats what the rest of the family eats, which I think is so great.


KARA: Just, it's just smashed up or cut into very small soft pieces, she said about the size of a pea. So Quinn likes eggs, cooked veggies like broccoli, spinach and peppers. She also likes berries. They're just cut up into, maybe cut up into four and sweet potato and avocado. So Nikki also makes Quinn purees. And the purees are really just a combination of meat and veggies. And this part I loved. She puts grass fed butter into the purees. So Quinn is getting that healthy fat. What a lucky little baby.

MELANIE: I know. That's great. Well, if you are struggling, we are more than happy to meet with parents and kids during a one-on-one nutrition counseling session if this is something you're concerned about and would like that tailored support. That's what we do. And we're here for you at Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are more than happy to meet with parents and kids during a one-to-one nutrition counseling session if this is something you're concerned about and would like that tailored support. That's what we do, and that's our joy is helping people feed themselves and their children. You can call us at (651) 699-3438, or go to our website,

Schedule Nutrition Counseling

Tips for kid athletes and other activities

KARA: And you know that I have not met with clients one-on-one for several years. But when I was meeting with clients, I had some who were competitive athletes, young athletes, and the big thing I would emphasize was the importance of eating whole unprocessed foods. Back to that balance of protein, healthy fat, veggies and fruit as the main form of carbohydrates. So the focus was not on carb loading or drinking a bunch of Gatorade. Carb loading and high sugar energy drinks only lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes, low moods, and in the end, low energy and lower performance. So athletes, they generally speaking, have higher protein needs compared to non-athletes. So that is one thing they may need to tweak. And of course, to make sure they're drinking enough water so they don't get dehydrated.

MELANIE: Yeah. Water, water, water. Of course not all kids are performing or participating in those athletics that you mentioned, but what about the kids whose main focus is academics or music, maybe theater, STEM projects. Children of all ages with all different interests benefit from fueling their bodies and brains with nutrient dense foods. I was working with a young woman in high school and she explained that when she started eating eggs for breakfast instead of that bagel or muffin or toast that she was eating, she began to think more clearly, did better on her exams. She was really thrilled with such a simple fix.

Omega-3 fatty acids: critical for mental health

KARA: I'm glad you brought up eggs again, Mel, because in the beginning of the show we briefly mentioned that one factor that can lead to mental health issues in youth is that lack of omega-3 fatty acid. And we know that omega threes are supportive for mental health and brain health. Well eggs just happen to be a wonderful source of DHA. It's an important omega-3 that's found in the yolk. So you definitely don't throw those yolks away.


KARA: You want to give your kiddos the yolks, not just the whites. In May, 2021, a study found that 70% of adults were not getting enough omega three fatty acids from their food sources. But 95% of children were not getting enough omega-3s from food. So that's kind of alarming. The studies showed that almost all of the kids in our country are deficient in omega-3s.

MELANIE: Wow. What's the percent again?

KARA: 95% do not get enough of those important fatty acids from their food sources.

MELANIE: One of the things I'll ask my clients to do is tell me if the back of their arms or their back of their legs have dry skin bumps. Because that's an indication that you have an omega-three fatty acid deficiency.

KARA: Mm-Hmm.

MELANIE: So we think, oh, it's dry skin. We start slathering on lotion, but it's actually omega-threes that we're deficient in.

KARA: Yeah.

MELANIE: And we are big fans of Dr. Daniel Amen, who is a well-known, neurologist and author. I saw that he had a new book out. It's called Change Your Brain Every Day. His website has great articles on children, mental health, omega-3 fatty acids. Dr. Amen says, “A growing body of scientific evidence shows that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids improves quality of life and mental health status in children with emotional and behavioral issues.”

KARA: So there are a few foods that are particularly high in omega-threes. If your child is open to eating fish, that's a wonderful way for them to get omegas.

MELANIE: And we're not talking fish sticks.

KARA: We are not talking fish sticks. We are talking, well, it should start with the cold water fattier fish to get the most bang for your buck with omega-threes; things like salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. A lot of kids prefer a whiter, maybe a lighter textured fish, less fishy flavor. So things like trout and halibut, they're also high in omega-threes. And of course we mentioned egg yolks.

MELANIE: Yep. Egg yolks. So I had a client, and for fish sticks, she took our chicken nugget recipe and used a firm fish. I think she used mahimahi, a firm fish, and she just made fish sticks.

KARA: Oh, that sounds amazing. I don't why I never thought to do that.

MELANIE: I loved fish sticks as a kid.

KARA: You use that same, it's a breading. It's a very light breading. And it is gluten-free.

MELANIE: Made with almond flour, gluten free. And she did the same thing and just made fish sticks with it because her child loved fish sticks. And it was a hit.

KARA: What a fantastic idea.

MELANIE: Yeah. And she used, I think she used her air fryer, but you could do it in your broiler too.

KARA: Okay. Because we know Mel, right, that the fish sticks that you buy at the grocery store, they're ladened with, well usually refined oils.

MELANIE: Refined oils.

KARA: Chemicals.

MELANIE: Minced fish of some sort.

KARA: A lot of breading compared to the actual amount of fish that you're getting.

MELANIE: Yeah. It's sad.

KARA: So making your own is really the way to go.


KARA: I love that idea.

MELANIE: But even Dr. Amen mentioned in his book and on his website how hard it is to correct an omega-3 deficiency with food. So if a child is already struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or some sort of emotional behavioral disorder, he recommends getting a pure high quality omega-3 supplement. And Kara and I like Nutrikey’s Extra Strength Omega-3 and also Nutrikey’s algae based DHA. If your child cannot swallow large pills or is allergic to fish, that DHA is a great option. And there's also a liquid omega-3 if they don't like pills at all.

KARA: And the liquid has a nice, isn't it like a lemon flavor?

MELANIE: Yeah. It's got a flavor to it. It doesn't taste fishy.

KARA: Yeah. From what I remember when I took it, it was, I didn't taste the fish. I just tasted like that lemon essence.

MELANIE: That’s the goal.

KARA: That is a huge goal. Yes. So there is a 2020 study done in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, and there were almost a thousand children in the study, ages six through 12. So all of this population of six through 12 had behavioral disorders.


KARA: Some examples were conduct problems, inattention, nervousness, hyperactivity, trouble concentrating, learning issues, and poor school performance. So it was a three month study and the kids were split into two groups. One group received omega-3 supplements and the other group did not; pretty straightforward. The children who took the omega-3 supplements improved significantly in these areas, overall health, quality of life. And then there was a test they took called the Strength and Difficulty Questionnaire, and all of the kids who took the omega-3 fatty acids scored higher. So I tried to look up what this test was.

MELANIE: Yeah. That's fascinating that they, that was a simple fix.

KARA: Yeah, I had never heard of that. And so that Strength and Difficulty Questionnaire, it's basically a screening for behavior of kids and it assesses risk of a psychiatric disorder. So think about that Mel. The group who took the omega-3s for three months did better on that exam, showing that they were at lower risk of a psychiatric disorder.

MELANIE: You have to think if that is helping them just with their testing, imagine what it's doing in their personal lives or their sense of wellbeing. You know, we want our children to feel like they're doing well and they feel well, and they're so, they can go about their life as a, as a kid. I mean, that's, we don't want our children struggling with emotional stressors or mood disorders. We want them to be healthy. We're only as happy as our saddest child.

KARA: Oh, that is so true. And so we will leave you with that. We hope that you got some valuable information today on how to support your child's brain and body and their overall mental health with protein, healthy fats, veggies, and possibly adding in some high quality omega-3 supplements or fish.

MELANIE: Yeah. Perfect. Perfect.

So, and of course our goal at Nutritional Weight and Wellness is to help each and every person experience better health through eating real food. It's a simple yet powerful message. Eating real food is life changing. Thank you so much for listening, and have a wonderful rest of your day.

Print Transcript

Back To Top