Nutrition: How a balanced diet and healthy eating habits can help your child's mental health

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Find out which nutrients and routines can help with your child's mental wellbeing.

Key points

  • Your child should eat regular recommended servings of a variety of whole foods when possible.
  • Prepare meals together. Kids can take on different roles as they get older. It’s a great way to teach them about where food comes from and valuable cooking skills.
  • Eat together as a family when you can. Eating as a family can help increase self-esteem and connectedness.
  • Role model positive body image attitudes and behaviours around healthy eating and living.
  • Please see your doctor if you have concerns about your child’s behaviours and attitudes around eating and body image.

As a parent, you are in a powerful and unique position to decide how your child eats every day. You also have the power to role model healthy behaviour and attitudes around eating, body image, and lifestyle choices. These are all healthy habits that can serve as a foundation in lifelong health for your child.​

What does a healthy diet look like?

A healthy diet consists of regular, recommended servings of snacks and meals made up of mostly whole foods (foods that have not been highly processed). It is important to consume a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Your child should also consume an acceptable range of calories for their growth stage and activity level. 

A balanced diet means that most of your child’s nutrition comes from the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide: vegetables and fruit, grain products and protein foods. Together, these foods provide essential nutrients for brain health, including folatevitamin B12, vitamin C, iron and omega 3 fatty acids.

The value of whole foods over processed foods

The brain and body work best when blood sugar levels remain steady throughout the day. Eliminating highs and lows in blood sugar levels can help eliminate ups and downs in your child’s mood and energy levels. The best way to do this is for your child to eat a diet rich in whole foods such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains. These are great sources of fibre, which helps to promote feelings of fullness. Highly processed foods, on the other hand, are best viewed as an occasional treat. Their refined sugars can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then fall rapidly. This sudden drop in blood sugar can result in less long-term energy for your busy child. They are also less likely to help your child feel full and could create further cravings for sugary foods and drinks.

Meal and snack ideas for a balanced diet

  • Breakfast is a vital meal to fuel your child for the day ahead. If they are not interested in cereal or toast, try giving them breakfast wraps or yogurt and fruit.
  • Packed lunches offer a great opportunity to try out a variety of foods. Include small portions of different foods that are easy to pack and not too messy. Paying attention to what comes home at the end of the day will help you understand the foods your child may need to be encouraged to try, or may simply dislike. ​​If you do not have time to pack a lunch some days and are sending your child to school with lunch money, be sure to discuss healthy options for eating outside the home, for example choosing dishes with lots of vegetables and lean protein such as stir fries, salads, sandwiches or soups.
  • Dinner can be as simple as necessary, once you aim to include vegetables and a source of lean protein. Planning, cooking and eating with your family can make dinnertime a more fulfilling experience.
  • Snacks are important to have on hand for children of all ages. Remember that availability often drives snack selection, so try to stack your cupboard full of nutritious food.

The AboutKidsHealth Nutrition Resource Centre has a range of sample meal plans for toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-age children and teens.

Developing positive eating habits

Planning and preparing meals

You can help your child appreciate the benefits of a balanced diet by encouraging them to plan, shop and prepare meals with you. Involving your kids in mealtime tasks will help them learn to shop smartly, understand food safety and appreciate the effort that goes into creating family meals. You can also use this opportunity to teach your child about balance. While most of their diet should be rich in nutrients, it is also ok to have some treats now and then. The less control you feel you need to exert over food, the healthier your attitude – and that of your children – towards food.

Eating as a family

Sharing a meal with those closest to you is a great way to strengthen family bonds. Especially during time of stress, the routine of having a family meal together can help and support children and other family members. Relaxed and routine family mealtimes help your child develop good habits at the dinner table and offer a way to share the highs and lows of their day. The opportunity to share laughter and support if needed can give kids a more positive outlook on life, boost their communication skills and improve their self-esteem. These all lead to improved performance in school and lower the incidence of weight issues and substance abuse.

Encouraging a healthy body image

Children and teens are often exposed to a constant stream of images and messages about physical appearance. With such highly publicised but narrow standards of beauty, it is hard to escape the idea that one should look a certain way. In some cases, the negative feelings associated with not looking the way they “should” can lead a child to develop an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

As a parent, you can help your child feel good about their body and what they eat by talking about diet trends, false information, peer pressure and media influences. You can also model a good body image yourself, for example by:

  • snacking on nuts, vegetables and fruit instead of highly processed foods
  • avoiding talk about dieting or comments on your own or others’ weight
  • encouraging your child to treat food as fuel for a healthy, active and strong body.

If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour and attitude towards eating and their own body image, please speak to your doctor.

Last updated: April 7th 2020