These Foods Boost Kids’ Mental Health, A New Study Says

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We all know that kids are supposed to eat a balanced diet that covers the ROY G. BIV color palette to ensure maximum vitamins and nutrients. Obviously, as all parents can attest, this is easier than done. But a new study shows that eating fruits and vegetables doesn’t just help our kids grow up big and tall; they also appear to be a contributor to kids’ mental and emotional well-being. Like, in a big way.

In a recent UK study of 9,000 kids in 50 different schools, researchers collected data that included self-reported surveys on what children ate each day, mental health screenings, and what types of food offerings appear in schools. And the study indicated evidence of the following:

  • Consuming more fruit and vegetables is linked with better mental well-being.
  • Children who consumed five or more portions of fruit and veg a day had the highest scores for mental well-being.
  • The types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were also significantly associated with mental well-being.

As a mom, I look at studies like this, and recognize how great it sounds in theory, but how difficult it can be to pull off. Picky eater or not, it can be an uphill battle. Where exactly does one start? Here are a few clever ways I’ve been helping my own three kids increase their daily dose of fresh fruits and veggies.

Take a survey.

This sounds super obvious, but I simply asked my kids which fruits and veggies they love, which ones are ‘meh,’ and which ones they find revolting. It turns out all three of my kids love cucumbers and green peppers but hate spinach and cauliflower. That’s a start.

Bring in new vehicles as reinforcement.

Since my kids love noodles, we started buying vegetable-based pastas that contain spinach, tomato, and other veggies. They agreed that spinach in this form wasn’t so bad.

It’s all about shapes.

It may seem strange, but it’s real: fun shapes can make a difference. Spears, rounds, chopped little “poppers,” cookie cutter cut-outs, etc. My daughter swears she hates tuna fish sandwiches, but she gobbles them right up when I cut her bread using holiday cookie cutters.

Smoothies are a blessing.

My kids love morning smoothies. We add to ours a plant-based protein powder that has tons of nutrients and vitamins in it, but doesn’t have a flavor. Some popular smoothie combos at my house include:

  • Blueberries, spinach, banana, and yogurt
  • Almond milk, peanut butter, and banana
  • Pumpkin puree, almond milk, banana, pumpkin pie spice, and vanilla yogurt
  • Frozen strawberries, blueberry, mango mix, kale and yogurt

Make a bucket list of food adventures.

My family created a bucket list food adventure calendar with a new food for the kids to try every week. This last week they had dragon fruit for the first time, and the only one who loved it was — shockingly — my picky eater! This strategy is a great way to get the whole family involved in some food adventures.

Stage a (secret) sneak attack. 

Some parents are against sneaking food into their kids’ meals; I get it. Personally, I’m fine with hiding veggies like kale or beans in a dish (lentils and other beans are great candidates for hiding). For example, on taco night, I’ll layer the shells with refried beans under the beef and cheese, and to the beef, I’ll add minced spinach or kale.

Use snacks to your advantage.

My kids live for snacks; many kids do. Somehow, certain foods served as a snack are more successful than when they’re served as part of a meal. When I serve my kids snacks, I try to pair veggies with a protein like cheese slices, peanut butter, or hummus. Sometimes, I’ll create a snack board that heavily features chopped up fresh fruits and veggies. Now, if I served the very same thing at dinner, it may or may not go over well; as a snack, though, it often is very successful. One of the many mysteries of parenthood.

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Sarah Cottrell is a Maine-based freelance journalist and lifestyle writer. Her work has been featured on VICE Tonic, New York Magazine, Washington Post, and has been included in seven anthologies including the New York Times bestselling series, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone.