Everyone’s been stressed this year, and kids are no exception. But a varied and balanced diet can go a long way toward helping your family unwind.
Most people have probably heard that serotonin, one of the body’s main hormones, is linked to mood and general happiness. But you might be surprised to hear that as much as 95 percent of this critical hormone is located in your gut—not in your brain.
“Serotonin is produced in the GI tract,” says Jan Walker, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “And those cells, if they’re bathed in the correct nutrients, will help produce better levels of serotonin.” And that can mean a better mood.
Of course, your kids aren’t likely to care much about the location of a hormone they can’t pronounce or its levels. That’s why Walker relies on an easy-to-remember metaphor when talking with patients and their families.
“If you had a really great car, you’d want to put good fuel in it, right?” she says. (Here’s an article about foods that can boost kids’ brainpower.)
What’s more, relying on subpar energy can actually have a negative effect on body and brain performance. Although the research isn’t 100 percent conclusive, Walker says that trends show “diets that are high in refined sugar can impair brain function, and may even lead to increased depression.”
With the ongoing stress of the pandemic—and the added holiday tension—parents might be looking for a magic food bullet to help calm children. Don’t.
“There is no single food that will relieve stress,” says Angel Planells, a registered dietary nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Our body needs and craves variety.”
What parents can do is make sure kids are getting a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as balancing hormones like serotonin. “That will help make sure that our body is performing to the best of its abilities while we all deal with fighting off the general stressors of life, as well as dealing with a pandemic,” Planells says.
Here are some kid-friendly foods to help you do just that.
THE FOOD: Dark chocolate
WHY IT MATTERS: “Consuming dark chocolate has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol,” Planells says. At the same time, compounds called flavanols may help relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, and decrease blood pressure, all of which benefit the heart.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: This will no doubt be the easiest sell on the list, but it’s not without pitfalls. Most kids are more accustomed to milk chocolate or white chocolate, which contain less of the good stuff, Planells says. (Milk chocolate also typically contains unhealthy ingredients such as butter and vegetable oils.) To help your kids develop a taste for the healthy stuff, try dipping fruit in dark chocolate or adding it to homemade peppermint bark.
THE FOOD: Whole grains
WHY IT MATTERS: Carbohydrates are synonymous with comfort foods like pasta, bread, and many confections. Unfortunately, we often make such foods less healthy by using refined grains, like white flour, rather than whole grains. “But if we make some swaps, we can see a reduction in stress through feeling more satisfied, as it takes longer to digest and absorb complex carbohydrates,” Planells says, adding that whole grains help us “stabilize our blood sugar so we are less ‘hangry.’”
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: Simply choosing “whole grain” versions of your kids’ favorite foods, such as mac-’n’-cheese, crackers, or pasta is an easy way to get started. Those looking to take whole grains to the next level can try making oatmeal from scratch. “A warm cup of oatmeal can boost levels of serotonin,” Planells says, which can act as a calming chemical in the brain. And feel free to add lots of yummy extras, like fresh or dried fruit and bits of dark chocolate. You might also look for recipes that incorporate whole grains into traditional holiday foods, such as these cherry chocolate chip cookies.
THE FOOD: Fruits and veggies
WHY IT MATTERS: Literally all the reasons! Bananas boost serotonin. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C, which reduce cortisol levels and make them easy stress busters. Spinach, Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, edamame, avocado, and potatoes are all good sources of magnesium, which reduces cortisol and promotes good sleeping patterns (which contributes to better mental health). Potassium-rich foods, such as oranges, cantaloupe, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peas, and cucumbers stabilize our blood pressure levels. And many veggies, like celery and carrots, provide the added bonus of making kids feel satisfied without filling their bellies up with junk.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: Trying mixing things up by combining different foods into flavor combos, Planells says, like apple slices slathered with peanut butter or veggie sticks with a side of hummus. New combinations may help them re-experience those foods and avoid a refusal to eat something that was a favorite just weeks earlier. Walker also suggests combining colors or arranging foods in visually inviting ways to keep things interesting. After all, who could resist a fruit menorah or a veggie Christmas tree?
THE FOOD: Fish
WHY IT MATTERS: You’ve heard of “good fats,” right? Well, oily fishes are where it’s at. Not only are fish such as salmon excellent for general brain health, but Walker says research suggests omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D have been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: Many parents may balk at the idea of even trying to get their kids to eat anchovies or sardines, but remember that plenty of cultures celebrate such foods. For instance, each December 24, many Italian-American families enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This meal can include everything from smelt and eel to squid and mussels. Likewise, some Jewish families serve fried fish during Hanukkah as a tribute to the everlasting oil that is fundamental to the origin story of the holiday. The point is, by normalizing a food your child isn’t familiar with, you can help them build a more inclusive diet as they grow older. If all else fails, cut tuna sandwiches into fun holiday shapes.
THE FOOD: Dairy
WHY IT MATTERS: Trouble getting your kid to go to bed already? Try dairy sources like milk, yogurt, and cheese. “Bedtime milk can help soothe your stress and bring on more restful sleep,” Planells says. Yogurt may also be a powerful source of probiotics, or beneficial, naturally occurring gut microbes, which more and more research is pointing toward as a critical component of whole-body health. “I would say in ten years’ time, it will be all about the bugs, or probiotics,” Walker says.
HOW TO GET KIDS EATING: Milk and cookies aren’t just for Santa, of course. But you can also try getting your kids to chow down on protein-packed Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts and a drizzle of honey. (Avoid the sugar-heavy yogurt varieties.) Hot cocoa hits the spot on a snowy afternoon; all you need is some milk and dark chocolate. Pro tip: Make enough for yourself—chances are, you need a little boost right now, too.